Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Things of Sense

Poulos' criticism of the phrase 'a sense of' lacks full context for me, so I will have to work with the (few) examples he provides. Furthermore, wandering off as he does into a digression on his dissertation and other thoughts, might give the sense that he is right, but this does not convey objective rightness in and of itself.

"Give us a sense of what's going on out there in that hurricane, Bob." What is the difference between this formulation and the more traditional, "What are the conditions in the hurricane, Bob?" I suppose the former, offending statement is meant to invite the viewers to experience what a hurricane is like rather than quote wind speeds and rainfall rates that might otherwise convey little human meaning. So the question I would want to ask is, "What's wrong with making that experiential, sensate connection?" I don't see a problem with it myself. In fact, this seems to me a good example of a quite positive use for 'a sense of': we literally cannot experience the actual noun--the hurricane--ourselves. But for the sake of more immediate sympathy for those suffering from it, getting a 'sense' of it, having our senses engaged, is actually more of an 'incarnational' way of communicating the weather than the overly abstracted reporting of mere statistics.

The second example (and only other one I can find) is this:
"critics of contemporary life merely beg the question when they call for us to replace, say, our lost community with a new 'sense of community'. "

He may have a point here. I think this is a place where we tend to want to privilege our feelings over the objective experience of a thing. We probably don't have strong senses of real communities except at heightened moments, and ultimately I don't think that we seek out communities merely to get a sense of being a part of one. I don't often have a strong sense of being part of the Catholic Church in its full universality. When Pope John Paul II died, the beauty of the ceremonial for his funeral and the following conclave helped me to experience a stronger sense of communion with the universal Church. Even when I am not actively sensing this, however, the communion is still there. If one gets a sense of communion when there is not (as may be the case with 'cultural Catholics' who support abortion rights), this seems to me to be a good example of the disconnect betweent the objective thing and a sense of it.

Personally, I haven't noticed this explosion of poor usage. From what I imagine to be the common usage, I might actually support it. I am an advocate of a strongly Incarnational way of understanding this world; however, we must be discerning about what it is that we incarnate. Evil can just as easily incarnate itself as good, and so before we crown our own experience as unambiguously pointing to objective reality, we might exercise some restraint and merely admit that our experience is provisional: "I am getting a sense of your irritation about this phrase." Rather than, "You are angry about this phrase." This caution allows for our senses to be corrected by the objective reality.

I understand that there is impatience among conservatives with the lack of conviction that many postmoderns persons show toward the truth, but I think forbidding the use of this phrase will not help people arrive at truth. They will either find another way to express this reserve with regard to the truth, or will simply do what a lot of people do today and just assert their sense of things as true, whether or not this claim has any merit.

But it seems to me that even in the two examples he gives, the import of the phrase is slightly different, and this obviously badly vitiates his claim.

Monday, June 29, 2009

My Sense of Things

James Poulos is an eccentric sort of conservative. He contributes to and keeps good relations with The American Spectator, so he's not a lame too-cool-for-Hannity dissident of the sort we've been complaining about in this space. Nonetheless, sometimes it seems to be difficult for some of us dim bulbs to figure out his train of thought.

One of his recurring gripes is to complain about "a sense of" as an idiom in contemporary speech and writing. I think we can stipulate that it is simply meaningless linguistic filler much of the time, and at first glance this seems to be a case of usage hypersensitivity, like those people who know the correct meaning of "momentarily" and cringe slightly when hearing the word in its colloquial sense. But I think Poulos wants to go further than that somehow, as if there is something actually blameworthy or alienating in its common use.

I don't get it. Again allowing for overuse, "a sense of" can be used to emphasize something quite real, ie, the epistemological distance between our experience of the world and its underlying reality. We can (and often do) experience a sense of alienation with respect to some cultural phenomenon or another without actually being alienated from it in any meaningful way. It's hard, for me at least, to describe the difference without using the offending phrase.

I wouldn't bother with this ordinarily but now we have our very own philosophe on retainer here at FlyingSpit. I wonder if Boethius thinks there's any there there.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Aesthetics for Me, Taxes for Thee

Boethius inquires into the tension between the aethetics of conservatism and the capitalist, neoliberal economies we live in. He naturally touches on high art, because he's very interested in it. And because it is high art that is most directly a function of aesthetic judgment, that is where the rubber ought to meet the road.

But for the various dissident conservatives it's not, and that actually threw me for a loop for a while. Instead, the neo-Amish dissident conservatives are more interested in evaluating and (to the extent they can) guiding political-cultural affairs according to their aesthetic criteria. In short, they are usually motivated by the desire to repudiate the George W Bush Administration and the what they see as that part of America which supported him. This also has (for them) the benefit of asserting social superiority toward those they disdain. Ie, those Republican-voting yokels buy their food at Winn-Dixie (or God forbid McDonald's), but I buy my produce from a farmer's market every Sunday. Therefore I'm cooler than they are, hooray for me.

One problem with this is that they are inclined to overthrow capitalism in favor of some kind of communitarianism or distributism, ie, something they have hidden behind door #3 that has never existed before in a major industrial economy. Mainstream conservatives remember very well how hard it was to defeat Communism and socialism and are willing to live with the very real imperfections of capitalism for the sake of not having to win those battles again.

The other complaint that I have wrt dissident conservatism is that so much of it amounts to welfare for the intelligentsia. This is magnified of course by the fiscal priorities of the Obama Administration. We are at a time where the base of our economy is changing, toward things we don't understand and can't predict. Right now there is a profound call, IMO, for the right tail of the Bell Curve to assert leadership toward creating economically renumerative opportunities for the rest of the world to spend their time harvesting. Instead we have professors of this and environmental directors of that working to preserve their prerogatives.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

What Aesthetics?

The tragic death of Michael Jackson seems as good an opportunity as any to reflect on the 'aesthetics of modern economies', as Koz put it in a recent email exchange which gave rise to my invitation to blog here. Michael, as talented as he undoubtedly was, owed his extreme popularity to the very capitalistic arrangement of the modern recording industry, which has proven itself less able to generate, say, a Mozart.

Koz observes that many on the cultural right get themselves in a jam because they support modern economic arrangement, but lament the poorer level of cultural quality that emerges from the patronage of the mass public as opposed to, say the Esterhazy's or King Ludwig, not to mention the Church. There are some on the right, namely the stricter libertarians and Objectivists, who are fine with the trade-off, but others in the current coalition, variously labelled as the neo-Amish, Cunchycons, paleocons, et al, experience 'aesthetic revulsion about the lifestyle and media of the mainstream Right', the 'Hannity-Palin axis'. This obviously is a larger field than what I would strictly call aesthetics, but there is a continuum here, so my point about royal patronage still relates. For example, Sean Hannity would have a harder time making a living getting his opinion listened to if he didn't have the very capitalistic Fox network and the mass following it generates in programming propping him up. Sarah Palin is more intelligent, I think, but all the same seems to have emerged less, in my opinion, because of her inspired pronouncements on policy, than because of her appeal with the cultural milieu of Fox broadcasting.

I'm of several minds in this, and hope that the opportunity to work on a conversation will clarify some points.

Would it be inaccurate to consider the Hannity-Palin axis to be allied with the neocons? In listing the groups in the conservative coalition (such as it is right now), it strikes me that those I usually consider neocons seem to exhibit quite little in the way of actual culture (with the notable exception of the Catholic variety, such as Weigel and the late Neuhaus, may he rest in peace). Let it be known that I harbor no great appreciation for the neocon ideas. It seems that part of the neocon difficulty is that they bring from the left ideas about 'human nature' in the abstract that don't translate well on the ground. The idea, for example, that Iraqis would naturally desire and embrace democracy is based in an ideology about the human person that is divorced from what we observe in actual cultures.

When I say that neocons lack culture, I don't mean that Cheney, the Kristols and Podheretz aren't well-read, don't enjoy fine wine, listen to Mahler or whatever; it just that their personas come off as tone deaf to the connection between culture and locality; they tend to view the globe as a monolithic thing, and where it isn't, it needs more sameness, as in American policy. Rod Dreher or Joe Sobran or Mark Shea will more often drop in references to things like food, music, literature (and not just to make facile military points in the fashion of VD Hanson), etc. I should add that I do not intend to write off the neocons, though I've been tempted to in recent years; their thought has so influenced thinking on the right that it makes no sense at this point to pretend that the right can make any headway without the neocons.

The other groups (excepting again the libertarians and Objectivists), are more closely connected with local traditions, or at least small-scale cultural phenomena, as the name 'neo-Amish' especially evokes. But certainly Paleos have always been extrememly suspicious about over-arching ideologies and reluctant to favor, say, federal policy over state and local policy.

I will break there for now, though my thoughts in the area are numerous. Back to you, Koz.

If this is the case, then it might be that