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Suffering, perfection, and the politics of love

February 14, 2013

Wherein I link to three articles I enjoyed reading. The “summary of a major thinker’s thought” is an interesting genre, and these are three such articles, each of which in different ways focuses on the political as the place where the different components of the thought comes together.

First, a piece in The Nation on Elaine Scarry, the “Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value” at Harvard University. Scarry embraces the to my mind somewhat strange idea that cruelty is the worst thing we can do, focusing her attention on torture, which, to be fair, probably is one of the worst things we can do. This leads her to the relationship between suffering and creativity, but also to an over-idealistic view of how politics actually works, a naive “conservative” (actually classical-liberal) embrace of a “social contract” theory of government. Such is the take-away from this article, anyway:

In her scattered remarks on justice, Scarry interprets the politics of the social contract as a collective commitment not to injure. Though not fully wrong, this definition adheres to the most basic and limited purposes of collective political enterprise. In her polarized universe, in which ugly violence meets beautiful flowers, Scarry is Thomas Hobbes plus John Ruskin. The conjunction of pain and beauty leaves open all that humanity has learned, at least since Hobbes’s pessimistic reaction to the English Civil War, about the possibility of solidarity in and through political fellowship, and the need to experiment with institutions to achieve it.

In a fun coincidence, Scarry’s predecessor in the Walter M. Cabot chair was Stanley Cavell, whom I know much more about. I recently came across a “thinker’s thought” piece about him  in n+1 magazine. I’m more familiar with his work in epistemology and aesthetics, but what this suggests about his political views in no way surprises me. They resemble Scarry’s in many ways, but while Scarry focuses on the plight of those in extreme situations (“the body in pain”), Cavell looks at those who witness the marginalized from a position of relative advantage:

Cavell jokes that most contemporary moral philosophy seems to take it for granted that the relatively advantaged simply don’t have that many problems; similarly, most contemporary political philosophy hardly worries about whether the relatively advantaged might consent to the regime that, after all, gave them such advantages. Cavell, by insisting on the importance of perfectionism, refuses to take the consent of the relatively advantaged for granted. Their moral problem is not that they do not know what is right (as with the most advantaged), nor that they don’t have the resources to pursue it (as with the least advantaged), but that they do know what is right—and what is right has become only a matter of conformity. The relatively advantaged thus act by rote, giving to charity, say, without becoming charitable human beings; and they do not consent to the political structure, because they are too cynical to take part in the political conversation, even if they vote. They are the right-thinking upper middle class whose conformity Emerson and Thoreau set out to shame, not in order to make them yet more cynical, but that through that new shame they might become what Cavell calls “ashamed of their shame,” so disgusted with their conformity that they aspire to something new, their next self.

I have a lot of sympathy with these ways of thinking, but I find it hard to get past the focus on the isolated individual. I suppose I favor something more like what the soon-to-abdicate Benedict XVI talks about, as explained in yet a third “thinker’s thought” piece by the “radical orthodoxy” theologian John Milbank:

The ecclesial society of love exceeds the secular society of justice in part because it involves infinite concern for others beyond what is merely due to them – or rather, this is what is due to them, for perfect justice is charity. But it also exceeds just society in terms of a kind of extended eros: the true giver of charity, says Benedict, also receives love from the one he cares for. The personal bond that then emerges cannot be planned for, nor commanded: it rather arises by divine gift, by grace.

It is for this theological reason – and not for politically conservative ones – that Benedict has stridently opposed all secular “plans” for the improvement of the world. Of course, he has said, we should be trying to improve the world. However, this should never involve the sacrifice of present people to the future, not only because this would be wrong, but also because of the perfected harmonisation of people in truth and love – to which he devoted his last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate – cannot be planned, precisely because it is composed of a myriad of “erotic” as well as agapeic events. A truly radical politics would therefore involve longing for such a future, as well as the determination to work towards such a future through many particularities. But to suppose one already possesses the blueprint for such a future would be, as Benedict says, to suppress the most specifically personal dimension of human life.

I have the feeling I can get behind this “radical politics,” but I wonder–is it a “politics” at all?

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