dinsdag 26 februari 2008

Looking for nuance between evolution and ID

I'm proud to say that I was a child dinosaur expert before it became fashionable - before what Stephen Jay Gould described as "the great dinosaur rip-off" with Spielberg films, colouring books, plushy animals, etc. I had to satisfy my curiosity with adult reading material and the fossil collection at the local zoo. It began when my father bought me a book about prehistoric animals when I was six or seven or so, and by the end of the year I knew the main facts of about 200 species by heart. I'm not sure what attracted me to it so. Perhaps the classificationary system for the sake of it - the geological timespans, the family tree of animals branching out, etc. I've always liked orderly systems like that. The sheer scariness of some prehistoric animals also contributed to it, no doubt. The lure of a different, primordial world where even the plants are all different, volcanoes going off in the background, etc. But also the beauty of all the different forms involved, such as lithe, graceful Coelophysis, with neck and tail almost too long for its body, built for speed:

I didn't end up a palaeontologist like I intended to when I was little. But I guess there is something of the similar fascination which made me interested in historical linguistics: we are dealing with fossils and layers of fossils of words, which may suggest past stages of language, and part of their social and cultural backgrounds, which we are to reconstruct.

I just came upon this nuanced piece on the evolution/creation struggle (HT: Quintessence of Dust. The article makes a number of points dear to my heart:

In a curious way, Dawkins and his fellow scientific atheists espouse the same notion of God that drives their sworn enemies, the creationists who oppose teaching evolution in public schools. For both camps, the only God who makes sense is one who designed all life with exquisite attention to detail. Scientific atheists disavow such a religion; creationists embrace it.

The point is stark, but it has merit. "Scientific creationism" and such ideas seem to me to a strong degree a relatively recent backlash against Enlightenment secular ideals of science, rooted in perhaps the natural theology of the 18th century but certainly not very much farther back in Christianity. Authors such as Augustine were well-known for being very leery of basing scientific conclusions on Scripture.

The article also mentions the alternative view on creation proposed by John Haught:

Don't think of God as a meticulous designer of life, Haught urges. A detailed design would have limited the paths that living things could take. Instead, he says, God's love led to a world that's always open to new directions for life, without the need for overpowering divine supervision. The chance-fueled nature of evolution doesn't disprove God's existence, Haught believes. It's what God wanted.

"Love persuades, it doesn't force," Haught says. "God doesn't compel the world to be a certain way, and that's because of how love works. God lets things be, and lets the weeds grow up with the wheat."

The Biblical foundation for Haught's view of evolution goes back to St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, which describes how Jesus "emptied himself" to become human. It's a crucial image, Haught believes. That idea of divine emptying--"kenosis" in Greek--offers a way of understanding all of creation. Instead of a mighty autocrat, it portrays God as a self-humbling servant, content to let the universe evolve and novelty emerge.

The notion is very similar to that of process theology, which proposes a panentheistic vision in which God is both primordial and eternal, the necessary being of classical theology, and at the same time unfolding and constantly developing within the unfolding universe. It's an enticing picture (though not without theological problems. Especially notions of sin, fallenness, etc may be difficult to account for within it).

I don't find the controversy between ID and Darwinian models of evolution particularly interesting. I suppose I accept evolution, if evolution is meant to signify that modern forms of life have over a long period of time evolved from one or a few very primitive ones. I guess I'd also assent to variation and natural selection playing a strong role in evolution. I would probably protest if random mutation and natural selection are raised as the only operative mechanisms in evolution, because I think that would be where we step from scientific hypothesis to metaphysical research program. The randomness basically being a negative concept (absence of teleology).

I suppose I am dead against "universal Darwinism": trying to generalize the models of random mutation/variation within a population and natural selection to domains where it is clearly not appropriate, i.e. cultural history or indeed linguistics. Dawkins carries some of the blame here.

As far as ID is concerned, the idea is fascinating, though potentially theologically troubling for the reasons mentioned in the article:

Intelligent design's shortcomings as science are immense, but its theological problems may be just as profound. The God of intelligent design is a master craftsman who leaves virtually nothing to chance. That's unsatisfying to Cambridge University paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who says many of his objections to intelligent design stem from his Christian faith. "It's theology for control freaks, with God as an engineer."

The image of God as a micro-managing autocrat leads to some awkward paradoxes. For example, supporters of intelligent design often point to the flagellum, the complex molecular motor that allows bacteria to move, as an example of something that evolution could not have produced. Yet if God designed even the tiny flagellum, why stop there? Intelligent design implies that the creator's blueprint knows no limits. And if God designed every last element of life, that makes him minutely responsible for nature's cruelty and failures as well as its beauty.

If more subtle models than God-as-cosmic-tinkerer are proposed, the question arises as to what extent is design a scientifically useful concept. ID would move from science into philosophy, or metaphysics. That, as a matter of fact, may not be a bad place to be. However, ID would then merge into pre-existing theological and philosophical models concerning God's omnipresence and activity.

I have no reason to be committed to naturalism, methodological or otherwise. I'm not even sure whether the concept of naturalism makes sense. If it is defined as the striving to uncover natural (spatiotemporally isolable) causes for natural event operating under general laws, then naturalism (at least methodological n-) seems pretty much irrelevant to most of the human sciences. I guess one may even ask to what extent physics is really a naturalistic science, if indeed conscious observation is a causal factor in quantum physics.

I've grown gradually more sympathetic to Peirce's notion of matter (and the laws governing it) as "effete mind" or Sheldrake's closely related idea of natural laws as ingrained "habits". Which ends up turning on its head the conventional picture of the human sciences as somehow an exceptional subdomain of (and, perhaps, ultimately reducible to) a more general natural science. Instead, the naturalistic domain of matter is an exception to the much more general case of teleological, agentive mind. Which fits nicely with some kind of panentheism as mentioned above.

And I guess that the ID vs. evolution controversy ultimately comes down to whether a metascientific viewpoints borrowed from the natural sciences (covering-law model) or one borrowed from the human sciences (rational agency) is most appropriate to interpret the evidence concerning the evolution of life. Which, perhaps, is a philosophical rather than a scientific question.

But in terms of a cultural phenomenon or movement rather than a philosophical idea, what troubles me about ID is, I guess, that it seems to me to be a reactive phenomenon, at the same time trying to subvert naturalism and playing by its rules in attempting to provide a scientific case for a Designer. If indeed the designer is God, the attempt seems to be almost irreverent, turning a mystery (the continuous sustaining and creative presence of God) into a problem of science. In that sense, if ID is indeed non-science or anti-science as charged by its detractors, it's ironically not non-science or anti-science enough.

Piecemeal destruction

I was reminded today of my love/hate relationship with my home country. Which I will define as the part of the Dutch province of Groningen centered around the canal towns of Oude and Nieuwe Pekela, Stadskanaal, Veendam, Borgercompagnie and Kiel-Windeweer reaching all the way to the outskirts of Groningen city, and north of that, the countryside around Winschoten, Finsterwolde up to the sea. South, the landscape changes radically, with forests and heathlands and winding little rivers - pretty, but not my home country. So my home country is pretty small: I could bicycle around it, with some efforts, in a single day.

It's also beautiful. One of the few places in the Netherlands where you would walk or bicycle for hours on end without meeting another person. There's the scarcely inhabited no-man's land on the border where it's hard to say where the Netherlands end and Germany begins. And the spaciousness: there are very few trees, and the land is flat as can be, so there is this enormous and sometimes menacing sky hovering above you, sometimes making you feel small, sometimes comforting, in spring when everything is in bloom.

Then there's the villages. With houses that actually look like houses. Not like the deadeningly functional, characterless suburban monsters they build today, but houses with windows and door straight at the street that smile or gin or scowl at you. The way they used to build before the 1930s or so.

In both the towns and the landscape, there's a strictness, a radicalness if you will: the canal towns easily extend for ten, fifteen kilometres or so along the water with little of a town centre or anything. The fields themselves, black in the wintertime, are pierced by equally straight canals with water that can be grey or black in winter but a warm, dark green when the sun shines upon it.

Religiously, it's the typical countryside Dutch patchwork: my own home town sported a big Roman-Catholic Community, an equally big Dutch protestant community, and smaller Dutch-reformed, Christian-reformed and even Lutheran groups. Everywhere in the countryside, there used to be a sizable Jewish community as well until the Nazis destroyed all that. Politically, aside from places where the small Protestant parties hold sway, it's red territory: power used to be divided between Dutch labour and the Dutch communist party, and after the demise of the Dutch CP and its successor organizations the hard-left Socialist Party is making inroads. I recall that during the eighties, during election time, about half of our street would sport CP posters.

It's a wonderful place. And slowly, bit by bit, it's being fucked up beyond repair.

It's been downhill ever since deindustrialization took off in the 1960s or so, and the factories that had been so important in my home town - bricks, potato starch, but especially paper and cardboard - began to decline. Unemployment was extremely high when I grew up, and there wasn't anything (and still isn't) to keep young people in the area. No jobs. Very little in the way of entertainment: when I went out, I bicycled seventeen kilometres to Stadskanaal. There used to be a post office in the town when I was little but that's gone as well. And public transportation, connections and all that aren't getting any better either.

Can't blame them for leaving. I didn't stick around myself.

There's resentment in Groningen province towards the political elites of the West of the Netherlands. And some of it probably very justified. But the worst enemy, I think, is the layer of local politicians and bureaucrats and developers and the dreadful ideas they come up with. In the Netherlands in general, there's a harebrained idea that decent agricultural land, which our forefathers wrestled from the sea with great effort, should be "given back to nature" - as if there is such a thing as "nature" in the Netherlands. A local variety of it has been the almost-completed submerging of some of the most beautiful countryside in the area in order to build expensive (and, needless to say, pug-ugly) waterfront property - the "Blauwe Stad" project. Personally, I hope no-one will come to live there and it will turn out to be a massive financial disaster.

Though it's too late the undo the destruction that has already been wrought, of course.

Today I read that local politicians in one community have decided that the village of Ganzedijk - one of the smaller villages which has suffered especially from population drain - is to be wholly demolished. Needless to say the people remaining in the village are incensed and determined to resist (and most of them are home-owners). But it's one more symptom of the problem the countryside is dealing with. There's nothing there: the buses are replaced by taxi-buses are replaced by nothing at all; the post-office, the library, and then the schools are leaving; and finally the people themselves are packing up.

And the response by local decision-makers is to demolish or submerge the place.

It's such a waste. Not only of the beautiful, agricultural landscape, or of the unique architecture. Also of the enormous efforts that have gone in to making the country habitable in the first place. But I have little right to complain, seeing as I left like so many of my generation.

I used to think of returning sometimes. But the longer, the less I feel like it. I don't want to see the faceless suburban watery paradises that project developers are raising over what used to be farmhouses and fields. I don't want to see what they're doing to the place. It's not my home country anymore.

vrijdag 22 februari 2008

More on Kosovo, the muslims, etc.

Have a very ambivalent relationship to the Marxist blog Lenin's Tomb blog. Particularly as Richard Seymour is so wrong-headed about so many things - Israel, Palestine, etc. This said, he's a clearer thinker than a whole pub full of left-liberals in Euston, so to speak, and his analysis of the Kosovo issue is well worth reading.

Some of the opponents of Kosovan independence on the right see the whole issue through a muslim vs. christian prism. See Taki Theodoracopulos and John Zmirak. Now, I see their point, but the conflict remains primarily national. You want to kick out the other ethnic group so they won't ever come back, you go for their churches and their graveyards (or indeed mosques, as happened when the aggression came from the opposite direction during the Bosnian war).

There's a tendency from the US right and from European "Eurabia" ideologues such as those at the Brussels Journal and the Gates of Vienna blog to see everything through that prism: muslims are coming, having much more babies than procreation-fatigued white Christian Europeans, and if we continue, we'll all bow down in the direction of Mecca and you won't be able to get a decent piece of pork anymore in thirty years or so. To think of it, we may already be there in case of the pork. Try finding a decent bit in any restaurant or eating-stall in suburbs of Stockholm. It's all chicken or godawful Döner kebab or lamb. I want my gyros made of juicy, greasy bits of pork, not chicken. But I digress.

I don't believe that the youth that are rioting in Copenhagen in what is the last of a long series of European suburbs boiling over are motivated to any enormous extent by Islam. But what shocks me far more is the vapid, vacuous reaction from the (white, non-Muslim) political class. In the Netherlands, there has been something close to panic over a supposed short anti-Muslim film that a right-wing populist MP is reportedly making, as well as about aforementioned MP (Geert Wilders) in general, in a way that merely shows the impotence and aimlessness of the ruling coalition in the face of an Islamic threat that hasn't even materialized. In Denmark, a socialist MP has made headlines by responding to the islamist Hizb-ut-Tahrir in the following words:

Therefore let us together send them a clear message: Your benighted state of idiocy has no place on earth, because in the long run nobody wants to live in captivity, ignorance and your pathetic clumsiness (...) To those who feel attracted by HuT and who meet resistance in their life — as every human meets resistance in life: Get out of the role of victim. Get out of the Middle Ages. Have the courage to use your common sense. Acknowledge the historic superiority of democracy, acknowledge the authority and equality of women, acknowledge sensibility and knowledge as the foundation to meet other people. Then, everything is going to be all right.

Which may have given them a hard-on at Gates of Vienna but sounds like a combination of chest-thumping and hollow platitudes to me. What it does not pronounce is any serious ideological alternative to islamism. "Democracy" and "equality of women" do not amount to such a thing. Mind you, I sort of agree with the equality of women part (I'm not sure about democracy) but all of the values mentioned are merely rules of the game to make the fight between ideologies and viewpoints go smoothly. As an ideology itself, it's hollow.

And then there is the tiresome hubbub about the Danish cartoons again. Which weren't even particularly funny the first time they appeared. And, let's call the thing by it's name, racist. That does not mean their publication should have been forbidden. But, for goodness' sake, if someone publishes a crude caricature of your ethnicity's stereotypical features - complete with turban, hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, and scimitar at the ready - you have the right to take offense.

What I'm wondering is why the West's answer to somewhat-religiously motivated rioters seems to be confined to unfunny cartoons, incoherent populist politicians, egomaniacal ex-muslims, culturally semiliterate secularists, and, oh, panic panic panic? Is this how Europe should meet its own discontents? We ask our immigrant populations to assimilate - to what?

In the end, people will gravitate to something that grants them dignity. That gives them the idea that they are part of something much bigger than themselves. The thing about Western liberal secularism is precisely that it cannot do that. That it's by its very nature atomizing, individualistic, hostile to any transcendent ideals and meaning. Islam however seems to be able to do it just nicely. What are the "Eurabia" ideologues going to confront it with? Christianity? Christians are a small minority in West European countries. Nation, fatherland? But that's all been hollowed out by the EU project - and there are good reasons why precisely these concepts have been suspect in the minds of generations of Europeans. Socialism or other messianic ideologies? Dead as the druids. On the political spectrum, there are no serious alternatives to some moldy Blairite social-democrat nannyism, from Sweden to London. We're a continent without a heart.

So if those on the far right worrying about "Eurabia" are right, "Eurabia" will become a reality because Islam as a motivating ideology, as a centre of gravity, will prove to be more vibrant and forceful than anything the secular West can confront it with. And that would be that.

US embassy in Belgrade stormed

So after weeks of Western media speculation that the Serbs would "understand political realities", "forego nationalism", in other words, bend over and take it like a man, it seems that they are getting tired of being kicked around while the EU membership carrot is being dangled in front of their faces. Mark Ames at the Exile is pleased at the redecoration of the US embassy in Belgrade:

What's particularly gratifying in watching the Serbs protest and burn is that it shows the Serbs haven't been completely coapted and turned into harmless little Washington bootlickers like the rest of Europe. They have international law on their side, and they have history on their side, but the real question is whether or not they still have their souls. The protests of the past few days, and the burning of the embassy, show that they do.

I think he may be too optimistic. Serbs have often made impressive and protracted shows of defiance which turned out to be ultimately futile. I can't say I'm dismayed at the storming of the US embassy, though. After all, the US and NATO have been bombing embassies with much less reason and what's more, in countries which didn't even belong to them (for example, a Chinese one, in Belgrade). And the shocked, shocked reactions from the West at the Serbs being a tad excited over their historical heartland being snatched away from them (patriotism being very much passe over here in Europe) are rather funny. To me, anything which displeases the colourless bureaucrats and satraps of the EU, or the haughty overlords from Washington, is.

This said, I don't see any alternative but independence for Kosovo. The only way the Serbs can get it back is through enormous bloodshed and a civil war which may last forever. The Albanians own the place now, after the remaining Serbs, Roma, Jews, slavic muslims and just about anybody else left - wholly voluntarily, of course. And it's time they get to rule the place as well - they can't hardly do worse than the UN and EU have been doing so far.

Unfortunately, that would be relevant if Kosovo would actually become independent. Instead, it'll turn into another Balkans EU protectorate.

I wonder what will happen now. I don't think this is a situation that the EU and NATO are actually pleased with - my guess is that they would have preferred to have Kosovo hang in the limbo it's been in for the past ten years forever, but that delaying Kosovar self-determination would have eventually resulted in an insurrection. European states seem much more divided about recognition than was speculated at least in the Swedish media (which expected only Cyprus not to go along, and who cares about Cyprus, anyway). Russia has taken pretty high risks with regards to the Balkans before, and maybe they'll do something interesting again.

My guess is, though, that nothing will change; that the Serbs will eventually calm down in the face of some vapid promises from Brussels; and that Kosovo will remain in the limbo of de-facto independent states together with South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdniestria, etc. In the real world, the little guy doesn't win from the schoolyard bully. And until nations at the centre of Europe actually get tired of the EU nightmare and start reasserting themselves again, that's what's going to happen.

donderdag 21 februari 2008

Psalm 19

Tuesday at the Bible group we read Psalm 19, the one that starts with the famous

The heavens declare the glory of God,
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

It's one of the Biblical passages which I jotted down a small post-it note about when first reading it, as the psalm immediately appealed to me. It's a lyrical but wonderfully tight, coherent call for humility and reverence in our dealings with creation.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.

There was a bit of discussion in the group about the exact translation of that last verse (Psalm 19:3), as my Dutch bible went for what the NIV mentions as an alternative reading in a footnote:

They have no speech, there are no words;
no sound is heard from them.

I do not know the text-critical background of the passage. From a theological point of view, I can see a point behind either. On the one hand, the order of nature, its beauty, and the mystery of its very existence does speak to us humans of God by virtue of us being human, created in God's image, and endowed with an inexplicable and puzzling capability to comprehend nature. On the other hand, nature's comprehensibility is restricted: we'll never understand the mystery of existence itself, the ways God created (or continuously creates) something out of nothing. And where physical science deals marvellously well with the relational and quantitative aspects of matter, the "inner life" of atoms (if there is such a thing) remains beyond its purview. We can intimate the presence of God in creation, but we can never wholly comprehend it. We hear the words, and understand them, but we cannot conceptualize, manipulate them as if they were of our own language.

What is the language, what are the words in which the heavens express the glory? "There is no speech, there are no words, neither is their voice heard." And yet, "Their radiation goes out to all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm 19: 4-5). The song of the heavens is ineffable. (Abraham Joshua Heschel: God in Search of Man, p. 80-81).

Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.

Wonderful and apt metaphor for the sunrise: a bridegroom, who, invigorated and facing his future with eagerness and confidence, comes forth from his pavilion. There is a sense of joyous vigour in this passage.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple

The psalm turns from God's revelation in nature to God's law (or does it? Can "law" and "statutes" also refer, at the same time perhaps, to the miraculously trustwortht regularities that govern nature?). But there is a continuity with the previous passage in that the law is reviving, invigorating, bringing life, as the sun is in the heavens; and that the law grants knowledge just as God's revelation in nature is mentioned to do.

The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

Appreciation for the wonder of nature is not enough: the impossible comprehensibility of nature can eventually turn to a manipulative and exploitative relationship with our environment. So we turn finally to God's special revelation, which is depicted here as a wonderfully light and joyous burden.

The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
The ordinances of the LORD are sure
and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.

The desirability of doing God's will is striking. So much of the Bible is a story of estrangement - of man abandoning and disobeying God, or desperately trusting in God in the face of an overwhelmingly indifferent universe. Culminating in God's own momentous descent and sacrifice in the New Testament. The simplicity and joy of the above verses is somehow very refreshing.

The mention of the fear of God reminds me of a passage I just read from Joshua Heschel's God in search of Man, where fear (as distancing, estranging, shirking) is contrasted with awe:

According to the Bible the principal religious virtue is "yirah". What is the nature of "yirah"? The word has two meanings: fear and awe. There is the man who fears the Lord lest he be punished in his body, family, or in his possessions. Another man fears the Lord because he is afraid of the punishment in the life to come. Both types are considered inferior in the Jewish tradition. Job, who said: "Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him," was not motivated in his piety by fear but rather by awe, by the realization of the grandeur of His eternal love. (p. 76-77).

By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servants also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight;
O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Another translation problem: my Dutch bible has pride for willful sins. But in the face of the beauty and richness of nature, pride is precisely the sin to avoid - the ignorance of our hidden faults, belief in our own perfectability and mastery over our environment. In that sense, the last passage calls us to humility and reverence in front of the heavens that declare the glory of God.

vrijdag 8 februari 2008

Men, women, and all that (part 2)

CLEO: So... About that last post of yours...

MERLIJN: Why do you always come to bother me after the fact?

CLEO: I'm the angel of history, remember? Face turned backward in horror, wings flapping, propelled into the future. Forgot Walter Benjamin? But I need not account for my comings and goings with you. I wanted to talk about that mess of a post with you. First of all, why start off with that link to that godawful Boyd Rice article? I clicked on it and had to hide my face in my wings.

MERLIJN: Part of the point was that it was a godawful article. Here you have someone answering Valerie Solanas, and armed with millenia in which men kicked women around, and what do you get? This. No conviction. Way too low joke-to-word ratio. I'd have done better.

CLEO: But you would not have been serious about it, would you?

MERLIJN: No. And neither is Boyd Rice. It shows. Solanas, on the other hand, carries real conviction. This does affect the force of their writing. Beauty is a pretty reliable guide to truth. I suspect, and it's no more than a vague hunch, really, that the misogyny of say Sade, Boyd Rice, and so forth is ultimately self-defeating. Men cannot in the end but define themselves in relationship with and in opposition to women. With a writer like Solanas, this is very different.

CLEO: So Solanas is right?

MERLIJN: I don't know. But it is an interesting thought, is it?

CLEO: What would you do if she is?

MERLIJN: You mean if my gender would be obsolescent, parasitical, ripe for annihilation? I'd do nothing. I'd just plod on as I've always done. See if I care.

CLEO: You haven't yet explained to me why you believe all this is relevant in a post on sexuality and love.

MERLIJN: Because neither of these are simple things. You start reflecting seriously on these issues, start digging deeper, and things see the light which you did not expect. I dug so deep I'm afraid of awaking the Balrogs.

CLEO: Bit late for that, isn't it? Balrogs not only awake and knocking on the door, but making themselves comfortable in the living room. But we'll get back to that. I'm vaguely disturbed by your notions about misogyny. You're dealing with an attitude which leads to killing people, all over the world. Not some interesting artistic perspective.

MERLIJN: Of course. But then, how is that relevant? I'm trying to sort out my own thoughts and actions, so I'm necessarily taking some kind of ideal, subjective perspective.

CLEO: Fine. What, then, of your glib dismissal of "puritanical" left-wing feminists as standing on somehow the same slope as the Taliban?

MERLIJN: Wasn't being glib. They really stand there.

CLEO: Now, hang on. You speak elsewhere about the commodification of sexuality and all that, so why would you dismiss protests about, say, the objectification of women in pornography?

MERLIJN: Well, sure, porn objectifies women - but what of it? Perhaps it's the objectification part that turns me on.

CLEO: But how can you harmonize that with what you write elsewhere?

MERLIJN: Perhaps I can't. Although, watch me. But there's protest against objectification, the depiction of people as sexual objects, as a matter of principle, and protest against concrete situations and instances of exploitation. Just as there is protest against prostitution as an issue of principle and against the concrete circumstances surrounding concrete instances of prostitution. It's perfectly possible to agree with the latter while disagreeing with the former. And my point is that the puritanical feminist wing in the radical left at least is all about the former, not the latter. And in that sense they position themselves against sexuality as such. And not just straight male sexuality either. I'll stand by that.

CLEO: My final issue. In all of what you've written, I see not a single mention of sin. Why is that?

MERLIJN: What is sin?

CLEO: You tell me. I think you know sin rather better than I do.

MERLIJN: Allright then. I'm unhappy with simply listing morally objectionable actions as "sin". Such as this is sin, that is sin. Sin is something relational, right? It's always a sin against God, right?

CLEO: Go on.

MERLIJN: Likewise, identifying sin with our animal nature, our reptilian brain and all that it whispers, and all that misses the point to me as well. Too static.

CLEO: Right.

MERLIJN: So to me, sin is an infraction against the two commandments: Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength; and love your neighbour just like yourself. It's primarily an infraction against love, a focussing on other things. And I sometimes think that the love of God and the love of the Other is highly interrelated. That it is precisely in the love between people where God likes to dwell. Though one should be wary of reducing one to the other as well...

CLEO: Hmmmm... Where does fallenness, original sin come in?

MERLIJN: I believe the first chapters of Genesis deal precisely with alienation - an alienation brought about by the growing self-consciousness, the growing maturity of man. Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil - and one of the first emotions they encounter is shame. Which is precisely the product of our alienation from one another, of our awareness of that unbridgeable gulf between oneself and the other. And I believe that a perfect love - between us and God, or between us each other - is unattainable. For us, that is. There's always a level on which we remain cold and locked in and alone. There's the mortally necessary hope of that alienation being finally resolved at the end of time, there is that.

There's also morality. The normative rules by which we guide our conduct. It is wrong to steal, to lie, to kill. All that. But it's a different thing. Normative moral codes, and at least the presupposition of moral universalism, are deadly necessary to get by. But they do not replace the commandments of love, which in a way transcend them. And the nature of God is precisely love.

CLEO: So no loving relationship can be sinful? Very touchy-feely. Are you some kind of hippie now?

MERLIJN: That does not follow from the argument. Depends on your notion of love. I believe I could be an inquisitor, and get out the thumbscrews and the rack, and go about my business still sincerely convinced I'm acting out of love. Love need not be soft or consoling. Not when the stakes are the fate of immortal souls. Mind you, I have no inclination to start acting in such a manner. I'm just clarifying my argument.

CLEO: Right.

MERLIJN: But there's a catch. If these notions are correct, we might be terribly bad at knowing when we sin and when we do not. Sin is what waylays us, what misleads us - but it does so most effectively when we think we are doing the right thing. Think of Jesus tempted in the desert, the devil promising him all the kingdoms and principalities of the earth. Think of what a temptation that must have been - to rid the world of injustice, to feed the widow, to institute His Kingdom through earthly power!

CLEO: The socialists.

MERLIJN: I was primarily thinking about the Church, which after Constantine happily fell for the temptation that Jesus rejected. But you are right about the socialists as well. And the tragedy is, that no matter how corrupted the Church became, it still remained the Church, the vessel for the heights of human civilization, the heights of theological thought. And the terrible thing about the Soviet Communists is precisely not that they betrayed their ideals, but that they were sincerely convinced they were actualizing them on earth. It's too easy to think in dichotomies here. To see the Church as betraying Christianity. Or to see the Soviet Union as betraying the ideals of socialism. They did, and they did not. The problem with simply regarding them as wholly corrupted, or perfect opposites to the ideals one adheres to, is that there's always the thought that "we can do better". The fiercest critics of Stalinism are the Trotskyists. Atheist condemnation of institutionalized Christianity is mild compared to that of various Christian sects. And that's a very dangerous thought.

CLEO: That's a very pessimistic statement.

MERLIJN: But I think it's correct. Ultimately, we cannot escape sin by ourselves.

CLEO: Is lust a sin?

MERLIJN: If it diverts our attention from loving the other, and loving God, yes. But sexual attraction, as such? I don't think so. I believe it may be very usefully and pleasurably put in service of love.

CLEO: Aren't you privileging sexual love here, to the exclusion of familial love, friendship, and all that?

MERLIJN: Yes, I am. And with good reason. Familial love kind of depends on it. I don't believe any other kind of love between human beings has the potential to go as deep as sexually oriented love. Note that I am speaking about love here. Not casual sex.

But I may be wrong here. It's not that important. In the end, I guess I believe love to be some kind of "merging" without loss of self - to the contrary. To overcome our alienation from the other by entering into a relationship where the other is strange, yet familiar. Intertwined pasts, intertwined futures. What am I?

CLEO: A confused guy at a computer screen.

MERLIJN: No! You of all people. You disappoint me. I am a past! In an ideal fashion, a remembered past. And where we may be able to never share our most private pains and joys, we can share pasts.

There's an element of negativity here which I think is terribly important. Total freedom is meaningless. It is only in the many ways that our past restricts the freedom of our actions, in the way we restrict each other's freedom, that free actions become actually meaningful. So giving space to the other, ending up with some kind of balanced whole of possible (shared) futures, is terribly important here. I think that's one way in which love also means confronting one's own non-being.

CLEO: You still have not answered one of the questions I started with. Where all that stuff about Sade, that Boyd Rice screed, German cannibals, for goodness' sake, where all that fits in with your conception about sexuality and love.

MERLIJN: Well, I think there's very ancient biological connections between the part of the brain responsible for sexuality and that dealing with dominance and power relationships. Just look at how closely intertwined procreation and the struggle for dominance in an animal group are. And...

CLEO: Hang on! Stop right there. You know better than that! Pointing out brain development from the crocodiles to you isn't an explanation. It's a just-so story. Only something in the realm of ideas is.

MERLIJN: Historical explanations aren't explanations? A bit rich, coming from you.

CLEO: Historical ones are, but they are always ideal in nature. Naturalistic ones aren't.

MERLIJN: Well, allright then. Did you go to that fetish party?

CLEO: I peered through the windows. Why?

MERLIJN: What did the clothing, the attire, say to you? The texture of ropes? Metal? Latex - harsh, black, gleaming stuff? What did it suggest?

CLEO: Skin.

MERLIJN: Precisely. Skin with all the opposite attributes. Soft, warm, tender. Beauty is always playing with contrasts. A totally symmetrical face isn't beautiful. It's boring. Punctuated symmetry - that's beautiful. A mole, a slightly assymetrical smile... And I think in this sense often what we are looking for is signified, most of all, by its negation.

CLEO: Where are you going with this?

MERLIJN: To fall in love, to love, does entail in some sense a stepping out of oneself, losing oneself in a sense in the other. Religious mystics, mystery cults, and all those have looked for the same. Breaking those walls, being for a moment one with the universe that seems otherwise so indifferent to us. Love precisely allows one to transcend one's loneliness without losing one's individuality. To become a relational being. But that notion of non-being, of death, is never very far away.

CLEO: I'm not sure I see your point. What does this have to do with German cannibals?

MERLIJN: I think that the thought of being food, of being consumed, of being an object so totally and utterly disposed of, is attractive to some people precisely because it entails such an utter, total losing of oneself. It's an extreme case. But I believe most masochists are looking for something like that. And that what they are looking for - pain, humiliation, the imagery of death, whatever - allows them to conquer that sensation, to enter it and come out more alive as a result.

CLEO: Catharsis?

MERLIJN: That's part of it at least, I guess.

CLEO: Except that the German guy who ended up as food didn't conquer anything! Hard to transcend anything while your various parts are frying in a pan.

MERLIJN: Precisely. And that solves my dilemma.

CLEO: How?

MERLIJN: Remember what I wrote about the ethical issues surrounding that case? I ended up stating that one cannot consent to one's death, as consent should entail that it can be withdrawn at some point. But that of course is nonsense. I can consent to being tattooed. Perhaps I'll have regrets, and have the tattoo lasered off, but that does change nothing of the fact that I Have Been Tattooed, in an eternal fashion. However, if we conceptualize sadomasochistic activities as some kind of dramatic, ritualistic enactment of, well, love through precisely the imagery of its opposite, then it becomes too easy to see that actually eating each other cannot be part of the game.

CLEO: Perhaps you are a wishy-washy liberal after all. "Safe, sane and consensual"?

MERLIJN: Hmmm... Perhaps. But that's a slogan, which encapsulates a set of moral principles. I think here it's more about that which is a precondition for and which transcends morality: the integrity of the other person, and his or her freedom.

CLEO: Also, don't you think you are drawing a much too close relationship between sex and love, here?

MERLIJN: How do you mean?

CLEO: Well, your attitudes seem to imply to me that you would regard sex outside a loving relationship as sinful, right?

MERLIJN: I guess that follows. I'm not sure that notion disturbs me.

CLEO: So we're back at the beginning: Merlijn the liberal vs. Merlijn the romantic?

MERLIJN: So it seems.

CLEO: Allright then. Need to be on my way, anyway. Next time, call me for something easy. Argument from evil or something.

donderdag 7 februari 2008

Men, women, and all that

First, a side question:

Why is there no good masculine answer to Valerie Solanas' SCUM manifesto? I'm aware of Boyd Rice's R.A.P.E. manifesto (NSFW, putting it mildly) constitutes an attempt, but I found it somehow tiresome reading. Sophomoric faux politically-incorrect boilerplate. It doesn't, to my mind, have Solanas' certified-insane virtuosity. Russian writer and National-Bolshevik (a masculine political persuasion if any!) revolutionary Edward Limonov's Women's day speech convinced me he has the skills, but perhaps not the temperament. He remains a socialist, even if a surrealist heavy metal nightmare version of socialist. Sade is out, too, I guess. Like Limonov, women are his ultimate concern: Juliette's tormentors, or the four protagonists of 120 Days, are monstruous caricatures, empty, burnt-out shells, whereas his victims are somehow endowed with humanity, inner worlds. Perhaps sadism is ultimately parasitical? In contrast to Solanas' cheerful contempt, neither Sade nor Limonov nor Boyd Rice could proclaim the obsolescence, the needlessness of the opposite sex. Perhaps even in the rawest, bluntest misogyny, men cannot but proclaim their fealty to Graves' White Goddess?

I like feminists. Of a kind. I hearthily despise the feminists of the radical left, who somehow combine adhering to a vision of equality and justice with neo-puritanism. Men and women are equal except women are tender, fragile creatures who need the full force of Mother State to protect them from predatory manhood. Yech. It's not that I despise Puritans, as such. If you feel that pictures of naked bodies are dirty, or that showing a naked ankle is a dangerous provocation to sex-crazed men, or that women should walk around in a burkha, I strongly disagree, but I understand the internal logic of your position. Just don't pretend to be a socialist, and join the Taliban, already.

I'm sort of fond, however, of libertarian feminists of Wendy McElroy's ilk, to the extent that I find nothing to disagree with them, on a rational level. And I respect feminists who are serious about being my enemy (Solanas, maybe Andrea Dworkin? I have to group Nikki Craft with the hateful radical leftists as she is pretty mad but not mad enough). The kind for whom it's war and they mean it. The kind for whom any harmony between the sexes can only arises when one of them (the male) is annihilated. That's something which I can understand.

How did I get there? Basically by thinking about a post about my confused views about sexuality, and how they relate to everything else. I suppose I hold two conflicting positions simultaneously. Which is not a bad thing. It's a precondition for intellectual progress. Many Marxists never get to grasping the Dialectic, but the Dialectic is all of Marxism that I have left.

Merlijn the urbane live-and-let-live libertarian

The one position is basically a libertarianish, sex-positivish version of "Your kink is OK" coupled with a "Safe, Sane and Consensual" ethic for putting kinks into practice. There's some posts on my old blog on this issue, which I might as well revisit. They all deal with pretty extreme issues - but it's the extreme issues that are the most interesting.

In one, I considered the limits of a consent-based ethic by taking up the case of Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal. Because it's such a clear-cut problematical case. Instinctively, you want Armin Meiwes off the street. On the other hand, there's no question that his dinner guest consented to be eaten (or that Meiwes, as a matter of fact, let go a whole series of would-be victims when they found out that Meiwes was serious about it, and not just into some roleplay with cutlery and HP sauce and whatever one roleplays cannibalism with). The notion "Meiwes' victim can't consent to being eaten because his is clearly insane" is circular - why is he insane? Because he wants to be eaten. Alternative solution: one cannot consent to one's own death. Back then, I rejected it:

Yet, I feel the individual himself is solely responsible and sovereign over his life, and his body. I am in favour of legalizing euthanasia if a wish to die is clearly established on the part of the person dying (I am mortally opposed to it when it is not). Assisting suicide of people who are not terminally ill I find ethically extremely dubious. Yet it would constitute a grey area in which I would not want things that I'm highly uncomfortable with from an ethical perspective, outlawed.

But then again, most activities one could "consent" to can be notably ceased anytime one wants. I can decide I'm uncomfortable, don't like what's happening and bail out of whatever is going on. Except dying. If I jump off a roof, safewords aren't going to bring me back on it. It should be possible to make an argument on this basis that it is impossible to establish consent to death. However, such an argument would have possibly consequences for the whole euthanasia issue as well.

I now tend to the second argument, with all of the consequences for euthanasia, assisted suicide, and so on (which I am much more negative towards than I was back then). And, of course, I have serious second thoughts about the whole autonomy thesis I defended back then.

(I guess I could raise a methodological tool called the "Argumentum ad Cannibalum": If your ethics imply Armin Meiwes should go free, reconsider.).

In another post, I considered casting my vote for the PNVD, the Dutch "pedophile party". I should add of course that seeing children as sexual objects is beyond my imagination. I hate children. They go from crying, miserable poo-factories to being unbearably smug know-it-all ten-year olds to being self-destructive fifteen-year olds with an unfailing talent of getting into trouble. Seriously. Give me the choice of painful hemorrhoids or having to spend a trip in a subway carriage with some hyperactive seven-year old monster from Hell, I'll go for the hemorrhoids.

I also believe children cannot consent to sex, and that the state should take measures to protect them against pervs who believe they can. At the same time I feel that those who believe children do have some sort of sexuality, or that the age of consent is not needed, and so forth, should have the freedom to try and convince me otherwise. And I cannot but admire the courage of the three men behind the PNVD. They put their life on the line to defend their opinions, and that's something I respect.

I also think modern western society's attitude towards the pedophilia issue is deeply, deeply warped. Perhaps in a climate where just about everything goes, we need one strong taboo, and pedophilia it is - but the results, with the hysterical reaction towards the PNVD, the occasional outburst of vigilante violence, the media's lurid attention when another poor perv gets snagged, they aren't pretty. There's a dynamic to hysteria and witchhunts. They start with a crime that is so horrible, so unspeakable, that to defend the accused makes oneself suspect. One sees this in discussion forums: the subject of pedophilia comes up, and any response milder than "hang 'em!" gives rise to suspicions about being a bit of a pedo oneself.

So I still stand by that particular position.

The third post, a rather rambling post on everything from pornography to Sade to the nature of freedom, is also one which I can still stand behind.

Except for one thing.

Much as I would want urbane, thoughtful, sex-positive, libertarian Merlijn to be me, it ain't me. Not the whole of it, at least.

In The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer describes Gary Gilmore's political views as somehow emblematic for the American working class: leftist political impulses and rightist overt opinions. With me, it's the other way around. My overt political opinions may be left-libertarian, but my underlying political impulses are deeply conservative. As in "there's something to be said for feudalism" conservative.

Merlijn the Vogon

The Vogons are, to me, the real heroes of Douglas Adam's galaxy. They beat evolution. They crawled out of whatever disgusting slime they crawled out from by sheer bloody-mindedness, in simple defiance of natural selection. And they write bad poetry, which is also something to which I can relate.

In the end, I'm an incurable romantic. Love, to me, is exemplified by Beren and Luthien, Arwen and Aragorn, Tristan and Isolde - it's should be, er..., well, pure, beautiful, all-consuming and ultimately doomed. This is of course related to my general "conservative impulse": one of my favourite historical novels is Felix Dahn's A Struggle for Rome which depicts the superhuman but hopelessly doomed effort of a Roman nobleman, Cethegus, to play out the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines against each other and revive the Western Empire halfway the 6th century. There is also Arthurian legend, with its last flowering of Celtic and pagan culture before the inevitable victory of the Anglo-Saxons and Christianity; and of course Tolkien and his elves; or indeed the replicants from Blade Runner and their useless struggle to gain a lifespan of more than four years. Or the Consul in Dan Simmons' Hyperion and his vengeance in the name of cultures, species and ecologies that have been killed by an expansionist human society:

On Whirl we stalked the elusive zeplen through their cloud towers. It is possible that they were not sapient by human or Core standards. But they were beautiful. When they died, rippling in rainbow colors, their many-hued messages unseen, unheard by their fleeing herdmates, the beauty of their death agony was beyond words. We sold their photoreceptive skins to Web corporations, their flesh to worlds like Heaven's Gate, and ground their bones to powder to sell as aphrodisiacs to the impotent and superstitious on a score of other colony worlds.
("Hyperion", p. 338)

I guess that part of me getting there was being an uncool fourteen-year old. And fifteen-year old. And sixteen-year old. Uncool with a serious sense of pathos, that is. Though it's easy to look down on one's feelings at that age. They were real enough. Mind you, I got through high school well enough, all things considered. I had some close friends, became a metalhead which fitted my temperament exactly, wrote dreadful love poetry in between typing manifestoes extolling the virtues of Comrade Stalin, and was content to just fantasize about suicidal shoot-outs rather than putting them into practice.

This said, my girlfriendlessness combined with my taste for historical and fantasy novels warped my ideas about love and sexuality a bit.

And no matter how much I would like to assent to the theses of the one part of me above, the other part knows very well that the kink-friendly, tolerant, happy-go-lucky, yet responsible attitude towards sexuality - exemplified perhaps best by the very readable and occasionally hilarious Dan Savage's sex advice colums - that all that is something for the Cool People. And whatever they are, I ain't it. I am, in the end, a Vogon. Descendant of what must be a long line of clumsy, clueless, hopelessly romantic amoebas, early multicellular creatures, primitive fish who all succeeded in somehow procreating by accident. I stand here in spite of the impossibility of me standing here. And my occasional successes in love and in romance and in sex merely underscore that impossibility.

Putting it all together

"I don't think a man ever gets over that first sight of the naked woman," he said. "I think that's Eve standing over him, that's the morning and the dew on the skin. And I think that's the major content of every man's imagination. All the sad adventures in pornography and love and song are just steps on the path towards that holy vision."
An Interview with Leonard Cohen

I guess there is a reason why I am attracted to some of the figures that I started this post with - Sade, Solanas, Limonov, maybe even Boyd Rice. They're still countercultural in a society which has wholly succeeded in assimilating and commodifying the 60s counterculture which spawned the sexual revolution. No matter where your hard limits lie, Sade is not okay, Solanas is not okay - they stand there, inapproachable, at the very end of the field. There's a recent film on Sade called Quills which unfortunately turns Sade in some kind of clownish, basically harmless pornographer. It's brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush, mind you, but I don't think it does justice to the man. Who, on the one hand, wrote the 120 Days which is such an obsessive catalogue of horrors that it would scare the devils from Hell and who, for all the bloodthirstiness of his writings, refused to execute his own worst enemies at the height of the Terror and whose Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man pretty much sets the height of secular humanist ethics. Whatever he was, he wasn't the clown Geoffrey Rush makes him out to be. And he was definitely not harmless.

Figures like Sade and Solanas are the suicide terrorists of love. They explode all you are comfortable with, until, alone and naked in the rubble, you're not so comfortable anymore because you have a sinking feeling that what Sade says about cruelty and enjoying the torment of others and what Solanas says about the nature of manhood might actually be true, even though it should not be.

My agreement with (some) feminist politics is instrumental only. I'm a strong believer in individual freedom, even if it means the freedom to do stupid things, which puts me in the libertarian Wendy McElroy camp. I obviously believe in equal rights before the law. But I no longer share the socialist pipe-dream that harmonious relationships between the two sexes are ultimately attainable. Or perhaps even desirable. Because I believe that they would take what Houellebecq and C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity sketched for the future: an abolishment of sexuality. Barring that, our infinite capacity to hurt one another combined with the basic impossibility of love (a desire to merge with the other, feel what he or she feels) guarantees that it's going to be conflict all the way down to the second coming.

Which I am fine with. Nothing more boring than utopias.

I just spoke of the impossibility of love. I must correct myself. It was fatalistic, romantic Merlijn speaking again. Ultimately, to open oneself up wholly to the other is impossible - no matter how much I try and want to, I cannot literally share another person's pain, or joy, and there's always dark recesses of the mind which remain forever private and a core of individuality which we cannot transcend. Religiously, I believe, however, that one day we will: that our alienation (from each other, from creation as a whole, from God) will be transcended in the Kingdom of God. There are times when I want nothing more than this, and there are times I dread the prospect. But the impossibility of reaching this ultimate goal by ourselves alone does not make the process itself meaningless.

Sometimes I think the main drivers of sexuality and religious mysticism point at something similar: the desire to break down, for a moment, all the barriers between oneself and the other, to negate one's own ultimate loneliness by negating oneselves, and finding oneself strangely and joyously confirmed in the embrace of another.

And whatever bedroom acrobatics it takes a consenting couple to get there, I couldn't care less.

I'll continue this post some other time.