Strong Constitutions: Cameron Responds

Strong Constitutions

I am grateful to Jon Beasley-Murray for his review of Strong Constitutions. The greater part of the review is a perceptive and accurate account of the central argument of the book. I also appreciate the objections Jon raises, which I think are important and deserve a response.

First, Jon argues that Strong Constitutions, despite its critical intent, ultimately falls within the mainstream of political science. Indeed it rests on a kind of scientific naturalism that is as bad as the pseudo-scientific rationalism it rejects. Second, Jon suggests the argument of Strong Constitutions is actually a rather conservative one. It confuses description with norms—what is, with what ought to be. Such a view limits rather than expands human freedom because, in the end, what ought to be is reduced to what is. Finally, Jon is skeptical of what he calls the “humane” tradition rooted in Aristotelian practical wisdom.

It would please me a great deal if Strong Constitutions were to be seen as part of mainstream political science. I have a strong commitment to social science. I do not, however, think the social sciences should seek to replicate the natural sciences. Strong Constitutions is written in support of an interpretive or human science that starts with the recognition of the centrality of agency and purposiveness, intentions and goals. I can’t agree with the claim that the vision of agency in this book is “as reductive” as rational actor theories. For me—like many social theorists, from Guillermo O’Donnell, to Amartya Sen, to Martha Nussbaum, to Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz—agency implies practical reason and moral judgment, which are missing in rational actor models. I assume agents can plan their lives and distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. A social science theory that does not incorporate that human capacity is not just limited—it becomes complicit with the unchecked instrumental rationality that undermines practices and institutions that are vital to self-government.

This brings me to the next point. Moral judgment, care and concern for others, and deliberation about both means and ends in aid of sociability, are human capabilities. They are by no means unique to humans (precursors of morality can be found among other mammals, birds, and, yes, even fish!), but they are massively reinforced by the use of language. The fact that we are speaking agents, among other things, contributes to our potential to be moral agents—that is, the ability to construct ought-based institutions. That is the sense in which Hume’s law (you cannot derive an ought from an is) is flawed. Morality is an emergent property of human sociability, a necessary feature of conscious social activity. Morals are social facts.

Morals as social facts are often embodied in institutions. I attribute recognition of this to Montesquieu, which is why he is a forerunner of sociology (Durkheim’s claim), and that is not at all a bad thing—my work also purports to be sociological. What makes institutions so interesting, in my view, and this is lost in a positivist perspective, is that in order to work they have to make normative claims that are always contestable. Merely reading the riot act is never enough—as we can see today in Ferguson. The factual power institutions generate is grounded in contestable claims that involve ought-statements. These are the moral resources institutions can mobilize, though they often fail to do so.

A critical insight of the book is that planning an action or activity before and judging the action after it has been executed are fundamentally different kinds of things. The first involves deliberation about the aims of an activity and how to achieve them. The second involves judgments about whether the aims were right and the means the best suited to achieve them. That these are not distinctions made in rational actor models is obvious, since such models focus on means-ends calculations exclusively. For that reason, such models cannot explain our deliberative institutions except in highly “reductive” ways. By contrast, the view that institutions are emergent properties of social action that in turn shape and give potential to agents implies reciprocal causality (where the causal arrow go both upward and downward between agents and institutions). I agree this can seem circular, but it is not an iron cage. On the contrary, recognizing this fact is essential to progressive social change.

There is, in the social sciences, too much faux realism masking complacency about the status quo. I am happy to be associated with a more “humane” tradition, though that is not a label I would have chosen. But I don’t see any basis linking Strong Constitutions to a kind of law-and-order ethic. It is, instead, written in support of the idea that human freedom is a collective goal, and to be truly free and flourishing we need to be participate in collective self-government. That is, at their best, what constitutions enable.

My thanks to Jon for his careful reading and probing analysis.

Strong Constitutions

Strong Constitutions

Max Cameron’s Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers is a very humane book. I don’t particularly intend that as a compliment, though I suspect it will be taken as one. In any case it’s not such a bad quality, not least in a book of political science. For Cameron’s aim is to avoid the dull, specialized, statistics-packed, acronym-heavy pseudo-objectivity that is all too typical of his discipline. Indeed, he has little time for the entire panoply of “twentieth-century efforts to make the study of politics a science in the model of the natural sciences” (199). He wants, instead, to return to a better and kinder time when politics could be conceived as a gentler, more virtuous and moral, activity than it has been envisaged under the terms of today’s Realpolitik and Polizeiwissenschaft. So, despite the overlaps with (among others) Jürgen Habermas’s theories of communicative rationality or Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s notions of “deliberative democracy,” Cameron suggests that something went wrong in political theory shortly after Montesquieu–or, oddly, just before the French and US Revolutions and so at the very dawn of the great age of constitution-writing. Indeed, the real hero of this book is Aristotle, and the Aristotelian conception of “practical wisdom.” The highest praise paid to Habermas, then, is that he “brings political theory back, full circle, to Aristotle” (157), while Montesquieu marks an end to things in so far as he was “the last great Aristotelian theorist” (92).

What results is a wide-ranging, ambitious, and often highly readable treatise on the function of the “separation of powers” within constitutional systems and constitutional thought from the Ancients to the present. Cameron makes two key points: First, that separating powers is not the same as limiting them. In other words, and against the common conception of “checks and balances”–the notion that the various parts of government need to be set against each other in order to ensure that none dominates the others–Cameron argues that it is only by keeping diverse forms of power distinct that we can have “strong constitutions,” that is, states and social orders empowered to organize and coordinate collective action. Rather than imposing limits, then, separation is best understood as a device to enhance each modality of governmental power and to ensure that together they are more than the sum of their parts.

Cameron’s second point is that the three modalities of power embodied in the legislature, executive, and judiciary are fundamentally all determined by their relation to written texts: writing, reading, and reflection. They are each, in other words, different aspects of the interpretative process in a system that is shaped by and dependent upon the written word. Constitutions are ultimately “texts that prescribe speech acts that are performed repeatedly according to a set of conventions and understandings” and thus give rise to “linguistically constructed worlds of shared meaning” (200). Hence, “reading” is far from a passive activity: when Cameron calls it a “speech act,” it is so in the sense that “reading the Riot Act” is a performative utterance with concrete effects on a given collection of human bodies. But such utterances are only effective if they are ascribed the requisite authority and legitimacy, and this (Cameron argues) is what the separation of powers ensures. If the Riot Act is read and the people do not disperse, then whatever the limited success of sending in the police with their batons and shields, something is wrong with the constitutional order.

So this is in many ways a very traditional book, almost refreshingly old-fashioned in its historical sweep and its attempt to rise above any geographical or cultural particularity as much as in its recourse to an old and somewhat out-of-favour theoretical tradition. Yet by putting language so firmly at the centre of its analysis, it also gestures to the so-called “linguistic turn” that has been so influential in twentieth-century social theory, even as mainstream political science turned its back on such theory in the name of rationalism and scientificity. Yet sadly, Strong Constitutions remains a work of the mainstream in so far as it, too, passes up on the chance for fruitful encounter with theorists of language, narrative, and political representation from Austin to Derrida, Althusser, Lyotard, Foucault, Laclau, Butler, or Agamben; some of their work is briefly cited, and there is a short if rather unsatisfactory discussion of Agamben in particular, but ultimately this is an opportunity lost. Here, I think, is where Cameron’s investment in the humane tradition does what is otherwise a fascinating and important book a signal disservice.

For ultimately, Strong Constitutions falls back on a scientific naturalism that is no less debilitating than the one that it (rightly) rejects in contemporary Political Science. We see this in the strange and wholly unexamined assumption that the separation of powers somehow replicates fundamental structures of human cognition: it “organiz[es] the state so that it has the same collective capacity for agency as the human mind: deliberation, followed by execution, and judgment of consequences” (166). This is surely as reductive a vision of agency as that of more conventional rational actor theory. Moreover, the invocation of “cognition” gives it a similarly spurious sense of scientific foundation–however much the first part of Cameron’s book suggests that ways of thinking are historically conditioned by communication technologies. Yet this assumption, that states act and think like people, and that people act and think according to these three particular categories, is central to what Cameron calls his “social-cognitive” approach, which is based on the notion that the separation of powers is “an organizational consequence of human cognition” (14).

Constitutions emerge then as less the product of human minds (as Cameron is otherwise keen to emphasize) than the quasi-natural attempt to mimic their thought processes. Not only does this lead to the very conservative confusion of description with norm: what (putatively) is becomes the model of the way things ought to be. Additionally, and despite his arguments against social contract theory, Cameron comes to remind us of Thomas Hobbes, who saw, as Sheldon Wolin is quoted as saying, “a potential congruence between the phenomenon of politics and the concepts of the human mind, provided that these concepts were founded on the right method” (qtd. 88). A new Leviathan emerges! So long, that is, as people do indeed think the ways in which they “ought” to think.

Where constitutionalism apparently doesn’t work out–as in the case of much of Latin America, we’re told–this is because of “entrenched patterns of social communication” that don’t fit the ideal model (178). Here, constitutions can’t very well do the job of bringing us to order, that is, of “bring[ing] speech and action into line with texts” (202). But then we are locked into a circular problem: if a constitution merely reflects (a given state of) human mind, mirroring its organizational features, then it can’t be expected to flourish in such barren social-cognitive ground. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Would it not be easier / In that case for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?” Which, upon reflection, doesn’t seem such a humane option after all. And this is one of the cruel ironies of the humane tradition: that it has so often been so very inhumane in practice.

[Update: Cameron Responds.]

Posthegemony in Peru

I was fortunate a few weeks ago to be able to present my book at a “Mesa Verde” at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos in Lima.  Guillermo Rochabrún and Juan Carlos Ubilluz provided stimulating comments, and there was a spirited discussion session at the end.  Herewith, the video of the event.  Many thanks to Patricia Ames for moderating and making it possible.

A Murder Neither of You Quite Remember

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

It may sound strange to say of a thousand-page novel, but Infinite Jest ends abruptly. Most if not all of the various plot threads remain loose, untied, and incomplete or ambiguous at best. Hence there’s an entire cottage industry (especially, of course, on the Internet) devoted to trying to discern what happens next and even what happened before. A small army of close readers have combed the book for clues and put together the fragments with diverse results. Fittingly perhaps, the redoubtable Aaron Swartz contributed one of the most complete and convincing conjectures. But there is little in the way of consensus. Suffice it to say, for instance, that the mystery of the opening scene–which by now we recognize is in fact, chronologically, the last scene–is unresolved and subject to much debate. Why is Hal apparently tongue-tied in his college interview? Is it because of drugs, either Pemulis’s DMZ or some natural variant his own body has synthesized? Is it because he, too, has now watched the “Entertainment”? Or is he even tongue-tied at all? Meanwhile, other more or less major questions include: Is Hal’s brother Orin dead or alive? Was it Orin who was responsible for distributing the Entertainment, Is Joelle disfigured or not? Did Gately survive to dig up the Master cartridge with Hal, supervised perhaps by Quebecois agent John Wayne? Was President Gently’s regime brought down by the separatists? Is the ghost of Orin and Hal’s father real? Is he in fact Hal’s (or even Mario’s) father at all?

No wonder then that so many of those who make it to the end of the book are compelled almost immediately to turn back to the first page. Significant numbers feel the urge to read the whole thing again. Is this because the novel is so satisfying or, by contrast, because there is something so fundamentally unsatisfying about the way it ends that we are convinced it must be our fault, that there are clues out there that we have somehow missed on a first reading? And so the reading becomes infinite (for some, Infinite Jest is its own addiction), and perhaps the jest is that no definitive conclusions can be drawn. But even if we don’t reread the full thousand pages, it has become clear that the book is fundamentally circular–“annular,” if you prefer, like the “annulation cycles” that pervade the background throughout. The novel’s “real” opening is in media res: page 17 to be precise, when someone “blue-collar and unlicensed” is imagined asking Hal “So yo man then what’s your story?” And so as well as beginning and middle, this line is also the novel’s (chronological) endpoint. Hence the circularity.

Sierpinski Gasket

Or if not a circle, a fractal: Foster Wallace once reported that the book was “structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal.” And one of the things about a Sierpinski Gasket (or Triangle) is that it has no center. And even where it is densest, full of interconnections, close observation reveals an increasingly delicate filigree of lines pervaded by pockets of space. So if this is a book about being in the middle of things (and I think it is), that’s not to say that one can ever be at the center of it all. Indeed, by the time the novel ends it’s no longer quite clear who, if anyone, is the central character–I had long assuming it was Hal, but it could plausibly be Don Gately or perhaps the spectral Jim–or even what we might describe as the main plot, and what the subplot or plots. Precisely because things don’t fully converge at the end (however much the various strands do increasingly resonate with and contaminate each other) there are still as many spaces or gaps as there are links and connections. Oddly perhaps for a book that’s in part a critique of insincerity and hollowness (for the trouble with Hal is that “inside [him] there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows” [694]), in some ways Infinite Jest has no heart.

What a circle and a fractal have in common is repetition: a fractal simply repeats in rather more complex ways. We are in the middle because, Foster Wallace seems to be suggesting, we need to learn to master (more or less) infinite repetition. We need, in the Alcoholics Anonymous cliché (and what is a cliché but a phrase that has been itself endlessly repeated?), to “keep coming back” (270), to “Hang In and keep coming” (350) until the routine has become engrained in the body as a new habit that can replace the old habits (the old, dangerous repetitions) of addiction and denial. Gately’s moment of realization is the point at which he understands that he can no longer think of the endpoint, or rather the fact that there is no endpoint, that the repetitions will never end. This is an insight that first comes from Joelle, who compares the wrong way of coming off drugs to a leap by Evel Knievel over an ever-increasing number of cars: “As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. [. . .] And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them. [. . .] Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?” (859). The answer, instead, is to think only about the present day, the present hour, “the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time.” Trying to sustain his massive post-operative pain without narcotics, Gately sees himself abiding in “an endless Now stretching in gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. [. . .] It’s a gift, the Now: it’s AA’s real gift: it’s no accident they call it The Present” (860). Living with repetition and in repetition, “one endless day” (860), Gately discovers that “no one second of even unarcotized post-trauma-infection pain is unendurable. That he can Abide if he must” (885).

There are, however, other forms of repetition that are toxic, and unfortunately for the novel many of them are marked by gender. Women get short shrift in Infinite Jest: however much the novel presents a critique of Orin Incandenza’s treatment of them as “Subjects” (by which is meant quite the opposite of endowing them with subjectivity), too often the novel indulges in the same treatment itself. The only real exception is Joelle van Dyne / Madame Psychosis. Her importance arises from the way she joins up many of the threads between the various narratives, thanks in part to the fact that she has long been subjectified/objectified by a sequence of characters from her “own personal Daddy,” who refuses to countenance her as a growing woman, to Orin and even Jim Incandenza himself, who places her at the centre of the (quite obviously) male gaze by repeatedly pointing his camera at her for his movies. One could then argue whether the novel provides Joelle with any restitution: on the one hand, it (quite literally) keeps her faceless; on the other, it grants her the agency to withdraw and leave us all guessing. But the shortest shrift of all is given to Orin’s (and maybe Hal’s and Mario’s) mother, Avril Incandenza.

As in Hamlet, mothers draw a short straw, and for a reason that is perhaps clarified during one of Don Gately’s fever-dreams. Here, he is visited by Death, “Death Incarnate,” who turns out to be a woman for it “is a woman who kills you and releases you into the next life. [. . .] This is why Moms are so obsessively loving, [. . .] why there’s always a slight, like, twinge of selfishness about their obsessive mother-love: they’re trying to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember, except in death” (850). And this, finally, is also (film theorist Molly Notkin tells us) the essence of the “Entertainment,” Infinite Jest (V or VI), in which Jim has cast Joelle / Madame Psychosis as “the Death-Mother figure [. . .] explaining to the camera as audience-synecdoche that this is why mothers were so obsessively, consumingly, drivenly and yet narcissistically loving of you, their kid: the mothers are trying frantically to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember” (789). Indeed, the “Entertainment” would seem to be a fever-dream whose moral is to distrust motherly love, to sense a conspiracy of silence behind the mother-child bond. No wonder then that the end of the book (the physical end, at least: the last page before the footnotes begin) should comprise a strange kind of rebirth, courtesy of a rather fearsome gangster, immeasurable violence, and a great deal of drugs, in which Don Gately is left on the shore “in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out” (981). Infinite Jest gives us new respect for the power of objects, the importance of the body, and the construction of habits as a dance with repetition. It proposes self-regeneration through self-forgetting, an eternal present without past or future. I only wish it did so with fewer sacrifices and, frankly, less machismo.

Symptom or Cure?

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Incandenza Festival

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play that gives Infinite Jest its title (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” [Act V, Scene 1]) and some of its structure, opens with the dead father’s ghost. In David Foster Wallace’s novel, however, the ex-king’s “wraith” waits over 800 pages before showing up (and when he finally does, the references to Hamlet pile up: “LAERTES [. . . ] POOR YORICK” [832]). Moreover, he appears not to his son but to the semi-conscious Don Gately, former burglar and current staff-member at Ennet House, who is confined to a hospital bed following a tremendous bust-up with three armed and angry Canadians (long story; literally). He features in one of Gately’s many (relatively non-medicated) dreams, as a “ghostish figure [. . .] of a very tall sunken-chested man in black-frame glasses and a sweatshirt with old stained chinos, leaning back sort of casually [. . .] resting its tailbone against the window sill’s ventilator’s whispering grille” (829). As so often in this novel, the reader has some work cut out to identify the figure, who isn’t explicitly named, but the allusions start coming thick and fast: “The wraith says that he, himself, the wraith, when animate, had dabbled in filmed entertainments, as in making them, cartridges” (835); “The wraith says [. . .] they’d thought all his agitation meant was that he had gone bats from Wild Turkey-intake and needed to try to get sober, again, one more time” (838). What other Wild Turkey-drinking entertainment-makers have we met?

So we prick up our ears when the ghost tells us that in life his aim was above all to communicate with a reclusive son whom he feared was “experimenting with Substances” (838). Is this then the key to the “Entertainment”? The desire “to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. [. . .] His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life” (838-39). There is, after all, an echo here of the diagnosis applied to Hal, currently in withdrawal from his marijuana addiction: a “hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (695). Yet Hal has apparently never seen the video, and is one of the few characters who still seem to be utterly unaware of its very existence. Indeed, if the wraith is even now, from the afterlife, trying to communicate with the boy, he’s making rather a mistake by appearing instead to Gately, who can make little sense of the vision: unlike the young Incandenza, who’s memorized half the OED, he barely understands half the vocabulary that crops up in his dream, which is described as a “lexical rape”: “terms and words Gately knows he doesn’t know from a divot in the sod now come crashing through his head with the same ghastly intrusive force” (832). And at this stage, he and Hal have yet to meet, or even to become aware of each other’s existence, as the boy’s one visit to Ennet House comes only after Don is already hospitalized. In other ways, however, the burly ex-burglar’s plight reminds us of Hal’s own situation in the novel’s opening scene: both find themselves strangely inarticulate, their attempts to speak mysteriously short-circuited as they can frustratingly utter only grunts or animal noises. In Gately’s case, the sounds that emerge resemble “a runover kitten” or at best a cow (823; 828): “something in his raped throat won’t let whatever’s supposed to vibrate to speak vibrate” (813). There are here layers upon layers of failures to communicate, that entangle even the misguided ghost.

Moreover, the film that the wraith claims to have made also surely misses its mark, and not merely because it remains unseen by its intended viewer. For the paradox is that the movie that Quebecois terrorists and US secret services alike are desperately trying to track down because of the deadly threat it is thought to pose to the US body politic, was (we are now told) devised as a cure for the country’s malaise. After all, “ennui and jaded irony” are presented as diseases afflicting an entire generation, sadly celebrated when they should be fought: “It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial USA treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. [. . .] Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human” (694-95). The “Entertainment” was contrived as a means to shake its viewers into life, to dispel all cynicism, as “a magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh” (839). And yet there is surely something ambivalent if not directly counter-productive about a would-be tonic that is also seen as the apotheosis of a mind-numbing popular culture that turns its viewers into inhuman zombies, pale shadows of their former selves.

Given that the cryptic cartridge and the novel in which it features both (it’s now confirmed by film scholar and Joelle van Dyne’s friend, Molly Notkin [788]) share the same title–Infinite Jest–we’re forced to consider the relation between the two works, the one fictive and the other solidly material, all 1079 pages of it. Does the ambivalence and counter-productivity of the one infect also the other? Should Foster Wallace’s novel be envisaged as a cure for the malaise that afflicts us (if indeed we agree with his diagnosis) or as more of the same, if not worse? For now, as we enter the book’s final hundred pages, I think that the jury’s still out. In some ways it surely is a deeply impassioned (and deeply moralistic) cri de couer against inauthenticity, cynicism, and the myriad forces of desubjectation that surround us. In some ways, in short, it is a strangely nostalgic, even modernist novel. But in other ways, it continues and even exaggerates characteristic tics of literary postmodernism–the footnotes, the allusive cleverness, the play and endless deferral–that make it part of the problem (again, if problem it is), perhaps in fact its most hysterical symptom.

Infinite Jest

David Foser Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s novel, in installments. See also Infinite Test.