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.

Will without Thinking

[Cross-posted to Infinite Test.]

Visit Quebec

If the Enfield Tennis Academy promises “self-forgetting through pain”, it’s not as though that’s the only means to self-dissolution. Thinking about Jim Incandenza’s films, Joelle van Dyne suggests that they begin to acquire an “almost moralistic” thesis: “present[ing] the self-forgetting of alcohol as inferior to that of religion/art” (742). After all, presumably Jim knew what he was about: he had been an alcoholic as well as an (increasingly) obsessional maker of films. But pain, alcohol, art, and religion don’t exhaust the ways in which the various characters in Infinite Jest seek what van Dyne terms the “Grail” of self-forgetting, the “mediated transcendence of self” (742). Drugs, politics, and death (by suicide), not to mention mass entertainment, are other routes contemplated or actually taken to achieve this apparently common and universal goal: getting out of oneself, away from oneself. Even recovery programs such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are, as their critics observe, simply another form of self-renunciation: “an exchange of slavish dependence on the bottle/pipe for slavish dependence on meetings and banal shibboleths and robotic piety” (706). So then isn’t the moral of the story (and surely David Foster Wallace is as much of a moralist as Jim Incandenza) simply that some modes of self-forgetting are better than others?

The paradox of it all is that being “not yourself” is the problem as much as it is the solution. In a long conversation about melancholy and its symptoms, Jim’s widow Avril tells her son Mario that there is “a certain very strange type of sadness that appears as a kind of disassociation from itself.” Explaining further, she adds: “You know the idiom ‘not yourself’–‘He’s not himself today,’ for example [. . .]. There are, apparently, persons who are deeply afraid of their own emotions, particularly the painful ones. [. . .] As if something truly and thoroughly felt would have no end or bottom. Would become infinite and engulf them” (765). Note here that infinity itself is seen as a curse. The only thing is that there’s no “apparently” about this observation: what Mario’s mother is describing is almost precisely the condition that seems to afflict just about everyone in the book, not excluding Avril herself, whose permanent smile and good humour appear no better than denial and have a perverse effect on those around her. When, for instance, she accepts a “pathetic lie” from her eldest son, Orin, about the death of her beloved pet dog (whose demise had been in fact as gruesome as one could imagine), it leaves Orin’s friend “wiping [his] forehead and wishing the immaculately polished and sterilized hardwood floor would swallow up the whole scene in toto” (1050). Indeed, Orin’s friend continues, Avril’s reaction was in effect abusive because it was “almost too unconditionally loving and compassionate and selfless to possibly be true” (1051; emphasis added). Likewise, van Dyne, on meeting Mrs Incandenza for the first time, finds herself “half-crazed. She could detect nothing fake about the lady’s grace and cheer toward her, the goodwill. And at the same time felt sure in her guts’ pit that the woman could have sat there and cut out Joelle’s pancreas and thymus [. . .] without batting an eye” (747). Just about everyone, in short, in this book flees emotion, and seeks to escape (transcend, forget) themselves with all the energy they can muster.

If, then, we have a choice, then the only (ethical?) question that remains seems to be that of which of these modes of self-forgetting is superior. The problem here is that although choice itself is presented as endlessly burdensome, perhaps because (along with emotion) it is assumed to be the mark of individuality and selfhood. Here perhaps the true hero of the story is turning out to be the curious figure of Rémy Marathe, Quebecois wheelchair assassin and double (quadruple?) agent. Admittedly, Marathe makes a rather dubious hero, let alone ethical exemplar: it is revealed, after all, that it is he who personally administered the most horrific violence of what is already a pretty horrifically violent book: as he “pushed the sharpened handle of the manche à balai broomstick through the Antitoi’s insides during the technical interview of the Antitoit”; and it surely is no great saving grace that he “later had vomited out into the alley under secrecy” (753). Yet Marathe manifests the power and will to choose, and in (potentially) betraying his country is apparently opting to live in a “confusion of choices” (752). This is so even if to begin with these choices are forced upon him from outside, when he sees a woman stuck on the freeway and about to be run over, who thus enables him to decide (perhaps despite himself) to save her. As he puts it in his broken, French-inflected, English: “In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking” (778).

“Will without thinking”: is this then what we are all striving for or should be striving for? This is not complete self-erasure, for (again, perhaps despite himself) Foster Wallace seems to rail, here at least, against such “self-destructing logic” (725). We need, as the Quebecois multilingually put it, to be learn to “say ‘Non’ to fatal pleasures” (722). At the same time, it is not quite a return to the traditional, liberal notion of the rational subject. This isn’t, I think, a particularly humanist book. It’s often suggested that people are really machines of some sort: a crazy guy in the halfway house says that he and Marathe are the only ones there who aren’t (“I could tell you were real. [. . .] The metal ones–have faces” [734]), but this may well not be what makes him crazy. Pemulis and Hal, too, see themselves in machinic terms: “What happens if you try to go without something the machine needs? Food, moisture, sleep, 02?” (1065). What’s more, loss of the self is not the worst of all problems: there are also people who are too much themselves, who (as Mario puts it to his mother) become “even more themselves than normal” (768). The ideal, at least if Marathe is to be trusted–and of course, he isn’t–seems to be a kind of impersonal subjectivity, neither the impossible bastion of rational individualism, not surrender even to the allegedly most superior of “transcendent” forces. A truly corporeal subjectivity, that doesn’t pass through thought or rationality, but expresses rather a conatus of objects and things. Not that even this leads to any great celebration. As Kate Gombert, Marathe’s interlocutor, puts it: “I don’t think I’m like thinking this is a feel-better story at all” (779).

The Wandering Signifier

The Wandering SignifierWhat happens when difference and otherness become subject to literary and cultural representation? What roles is otherness made to play, and what functions are found for the depiction of difference? These are some of the questions Erin Graff Zivin sets out to answer in The Wandering Signifier, where her focus is the “Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary.” There are of course plenty of other more obvious social divides in Latin America than that between Jew and non-Jew. There are, in other words, plenty of “other others,” not least the indigenous peoples who were displaced by the arrival of the Europeans, and who have been oppressed ever since, but remain a significant proportion of the population in countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala. Or one might think of the African presence, legacy of the slave trade, that has had such an impact in the Caribbean, Brazil, and elsewhere. By contrast, the number of Jews in the region has always been small–albeit significant in pockets such as Buenos Aires and the River Plate region–and their place in Latin America’s often rigid social hierarchies has been much more ambivalent and ambiguous. But Graff Zivin argues that it is in part precisely because of its ambivalences (and perhaps even because of the relative scarcity of “real” Jews) that Jewishness comes strangely to the fore when it comes time for Latin American authors to define their culture’s identity and their own role in shaping it.

By stressing the role or function of otherness, Graff Zivin wants to steer clear of the mundane debates about ethnic or cultural stereotypes. She is not, for instance, all that concerned about the distance between the literary representations of “Jewishness” (a term she consistently places in quotation marks, to signal its constructedness) and the “real” attributes of flesh-and-blood, historical Jews. This distance is undeniable: “real” Jews do not fit well their stereotypical representations, not least because those representations are so contradictory. Jews are portrayed simultaneously as marginal outcasts and as sinisterly powerful; they are reviled for their supposed ugliness and at the same time feared (or desired) for their seductiveness; they are portrayed as both inescapably different and uncannily similar to the white, Western ideal. But while it is no doubt useful to point out the gap between rhetoric (whether racist or idealizing) and reality, Graff Zivin is more interested in the “rhetorical malleability” itself, and in the uses to which it is put in discourses that are often, ostensibly, not about Jews or “Jewishness” at all. Indeed, “Jews” frequently stand in for the “other others” (indigenous peoples, Afro-Latins, and so on) that may impinge more on the project of constructing a sense of Latin American identity, but that for that very reason may be less versatile or less amenable to cultural representation.

The book presents three “scenes” in which “Jewishness” commonly figures: diagnosis, transaction, and conversion. In the first case, “Jews” are often presented as sick or unhealthy; but they are also equally associated with the medical profession. So the figure of the “Jew” can play either role (or both) in the scene of diagnosis. Likewise, in the scenes of transaction, which involve sexuality and money or even the two together, as in the figure of Jewish prostitution, “Jews” are portrayed as both traders and traded. And conversion scenes focus on the figure of the “converso,” the “Jew” (and now the quotation marks take on extra weight) who may or may not be “Jewish” at all, who may provide the model either of successful assimilation or of its utter impossibility. In each case, the book provides deft and convincing (if sometimes strangely truncated) readings of a range of literary texts, canonical and otherwise, from a variety of eras and from Brazil as well as from Spanish America. New light is shed on (for instance) Jorge Isaacs’s classic María and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Emma Zunz” and “Deutches Requiem,” as well as on a Brazilian Samba and more recent stories by Fogwill and Sergio Chefjec. Consistently, Graff Zivin highlights that the diagnoses, transactions, and conversions are not merely thematic objects of representation, but also performatively enacted by the texts themselves:

The diagnosis is thus not merely written about, but enacted as well; the financial or sexual transaction is not just narrated, but the negotiation also happens on the level of discourse; conversion not only appears as a motif, but the narrative itself realizes a textual conversion: it converts its object by assimilating it into the order of representation. (26)

Ultimately, Graff Zivin is most interested in the last of these functions (and she devotes her final chapter to the topic): whether any representation of the other is inevitably also a form of assimilation. Is the other, in short, always and necessarily reduced to a mere rhetorical function or role simply by virtue of its representation? Or is there some resistance or surplus that ensures that something of the other’s otherness survives and even contests its literary representation? Against the claims of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, this book argues–and for its own sake it has to, in that it, too, quite consciously makes “Jewishness” perform a quite particular function, of helping us to delineate the ethics of representation–that rhetoric doesn’t necessarily exhaust or annihilate real difference. What is less clear is whether Graff Zivin believes that this is always the case, whether (in my terms, if not hers), something always escapes. Her preference, it seems, is towards precisely the kind of careful and self-reflexive accounts that she herself also strives to provide: Borges’s short stories; Ricardo Piglia’s Respiración arficial. This is a book about the ethics of writing that wants to make as few claims upon the other as possible.

But perhaps because of its focus on the ethical dilemma inherent in any attempt to write (about) the other, Graff Zivin’s argument tends towards abstraction. For instance, in her eclectic choice of texts, historical or social context tends to blur, often despite her own best efforts. The problematic raised by the representation of “Jewishness” comes to seem rather similar in Brazil as in Colombia, in the late twentieth century as in the nineteenth. This erasure of history is all the more pronounced when the book dwells on elements of the depiction of “Jewishness” that are drawn from a long tradition dating back to the Middle Ages if not earlier still. Of course, we are dealing here with what is effectively a myth–or a series of closely-related mythic symbolizations. But while a myth, by its very nature, is detached from history and may, in practice, also be transhistorical and transcultural, this does not mean that it is ahistorical. Indeed, treating it as such threatens to confirm its mythic power: in this case, to confirm the notion that the “Jew” (the idea of the “Jew,” not actual Jews) inevitably, and perhaps uniquely, is associated with the same unchanging series of attributes, including (no doubt) the attribute of malleability and textual slipperiness. But surely there are particular moments and particular places in which “Jewishness” takes on specific qualities, while others are discarded or downplayed. And are there not particular occasions when anxiety and/or fascination with Jewishness comes to the fore, and others when it fades into the background or is even forgotten entirely? However much Graff Zivin is clear that she has little wish to dismantle the rhetoric of “Jewishness” entirely, it seems odd to place it on the horizon of all representation of otherness in Latin America as a whole.

Further, the more that in this argument “Jewishness” comes to stand in for language as such–or for the inevitable ethical impasse posed in and by any project of representation–the more that all “Jewish” specificity is lost. Or, to put it another way, the more that the question becomes about ethics per se, the more that Graff Zivin (on her own terms) comes to risk the ethical failure to treat “Jewishness” as anything more than an empty cipher, that could be replaced by any other: indigeneity, blackness, femininity, latinidad… It is one of this book’s many virtues that it is consistently aware (and makes us aware) of this danger. But it is a weakness that in the end it falls into a trap constructed in part in and through its own anxiety to do the right thing.