Monday, June 18, 2007

Pragmatism or Practicality?

Edward Rothstein in "Connections," like his colleague in the Arts section who reviews TV, Virginia Heffernan, makes the NY Times worth reading. This on a day that the wife and I ponder whether to simply dump the LA Times, which announced it cannot even keep its "Parade"-level Sunday supplement, once grandly named the Los Angeles Times Magazine in imitation of you know who before reverting to the retro 70s moniker that it used to assume (when the paper also had "Home" as a separate magazine), "West." I do read Tim Rutten in the LAT Calendar section, although I often disagree with him, as he gets to review Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson's poetry collections and has a rare background these days in what used to be called Western civ. Still PC as to be expected from nearly any but the jokey conservative or the serious one they have goofing on the Op-Ed pages as a tag-team white boy Washington Capitols vs. the journalists of a Harlem Globetrotters people of colors not pink or swarthy. An earnest and properly liberal ESL teacher I knew (who was a WASP who posed once for Israeli Playboy in that halcyon era post-Six Day and pre-Yom Kippur Wars) fulminated against the shade labelled on old Crayola 64 as "flesh."

This leads me, actually, to this article comparing a formidable pair of heavyweights in any PC ring the past couple of generations, at least on campuses that may be more like the U of Chicago than, well, USC. (Had to get that dig in as a Bruin. See my photo on the profile!) Richard Rorty vs. Claude Levi-Strauss, as seen through the p-o-v of Rothstein, might have different ideas about variable truths and live and let die if they met the haughty Caduveo, a decidedly non-noble lot of sauvages who lorded over all whom they met, despising nature itself, in Brazilian Amazonia.

Rothstein then cites Rorty, who reacted as I did, after the initial surprise, on hearing what occurred Sept. 11, 2001. The journalist appears to criticize Rorty for his remark, but it seems perfectly sensible to me. Internal failure of G. W. Bush, in this case, to step aside from the attack on our nation may be immediately understandable, given our collective and individual shock, but the consistency of the past nearly six years now of Patriot Acts and zero tolerance and excuses to pump up our military-industrial complex both psychologically and, well, pragmatically appear to bear Rorty's own "first thought" out all too well.

One tendency of pragmatism might be to so focus on the ways in which one’s own worldview is flawed that trauma is more readily attributed to internal failure than to external challenges. In one of his last interviews Mr. Rorty recalled the events of 9/11: “When I heard the news about the twin towers, my first thought was: ‘Oh, God. Bush will use this the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire.’ ”

If that really was his first thought, it reflects a certain amount of reluctance to comprehend forces lying beyond the boundaries of his familiar world, an inability fully to imagine what confrontations over truth might look like, possibly even a resistance to stepping outside of one’s skin or mental habits.

Look, it's a very young, and fetching, Ms. Heffernan, according to her picture. I find she has a blog, "Screens," but I cannot get it to permalink here. It wants me to comment instead. Prefer to cut-and-paste her intro from June 18, "What Died When Rorty Died?", sans the You Tube epitaph! But she recommends it highly, so go for it.

Screens plans to go broke overestimating everyone’s intelligence today, including its own.
Here goes.

There is a poem by Philip Larkin that Richard Rorty liked. Here is how it ends:
And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.
And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

Citing this poem in the book “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity,” Mr. Rorty, the great American philosopher, urged us to create ourselves, invent our own vocabularies and thereby form something rich and interesting that — as he put it — will die when we die.

On June 8, he himself died.
What follows is a droll and meandering discussion of Mr. Rorty: a well-tailored film cut down for YouTube. Watch it to see his amazing repose and hear his unimpeachable sonority. Just try to doubt a word he says. Richard Rorty — pragmatist, ironist, skeptic, moralist — was brilliant, brave and funny, and what he said made sense and it mattered.

I turn now back to (tonight's electronic version of this morning's) printed page, favoring ink over streams for my imagery, and read confirmation of Rorty's philosophical refusal to place as paramount any truth verifiable or universal, in a secular worldview of course. These rules mark the game we play in our modern NYT-reading, PC-worshipping, "we are the world" mentality when we go to the U of Chicago. I am not sure about where I teach or USC, for that matter. The acceptance of nominalism rather than realism, to put it in 12c terms that Abelard might have understood, remains our destiny once Church and mullah and rabbi become caretakers of their houses of worship rather than arbiters of the state, kingmakers, and masters of puppets. This polity-- and no less powerful does it reign over universities and the NYT and LAT-- has been colonized by the resurgent mandarins such as Rorty led into philosophy and, I note, lit crit and the humanities, the position of professorship in which he retired being the latter categories...blurred for and by such intellectual whirlwinds. After all, as I pondered in this blog last week about the fatwa article in the NYT-- once we in the West have dethroned Queen Theologia, we wind up along with Pilate asking "quod est veritas?"

Alessandra Stanley reviews a TV series for the hip (naturally) "Simon Schama's Power of Art." Note placement of the presenter before the subject matter. Harvard prof, educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he's primo PBS, for us what Sir Kenneth Clarke was to 1969. Re-enactments of angry Rothko, Nazi jackboots, what Stanley calls genially "the Bob Barker of art criticism" beckons us to come on down and leap into the embrace of Van Gogh and Picasso. Why not start there?

Schama's an intriguing case of the shift from servant to Queen Theology to ruler as Tenured Philosopher, having grown up Orthodox in postwar London of Dutch Sephardic descent. Child of the 60s, he went to Oxbridge and decided one day keeping kosher was silly, so thus began his "enlightenment," at least in his own estimation. His segment about "Guernica" sounds promising; a possibly apocryphal anecdote dramatizes Picasso denying that the artwork was "his." No, he tells the helmeted goon, "it was yours." The fearless artist, the voice of the fragile against the fury. That cliché about speaking truth to power didn't work so well, however, a year and a half after 9/11 forced the US to make good its unwise vow to end the war on terror.

Mr. Schama ends the segment with another anecdote, describing the moment in 2003 when Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, went to the United Nations to make the case for war against Saddam Hussein, and United Nations officials covered the tapestry version of “Guernica” with a large blue cloth, concerned that Picasso’s dead children, weeping mothers and screaming horses might clash with Mr. Powell’s message.

Mr. Schama says this is proof that art has a power that even a superpower cannot defuse. “You’re the mightiest country in the world, you can throw your armies around, you can get rid of dictators,” he says. “But, hey, don’t tangle with a masterpiece.”

The power of the pen vs. the sword, Dept. of Homeland Security vs. my blog. My humanities education applied daily to a working class, hardscrabble classroom level that Rorty never had to survive in, for all his desire in his later years, after the excesses of the radical movement, to make his teaching relevant. What do my charges know about art and politics and their confrontation?

Typing this, I prepare for my own tiny bit of research frantically completed in the midst of teaching 45 weeks annually. Having been the victim of name-caused holdups whenever flying the past few years, I received in response to my inquiry to our guardians of liberty my own form letter from the TSA. Telling me in dense paragraphs of bureaucratese that Orwell could have cited in "Politics & the English Language" as models that they could or could not remove me from the "don't make life easy when this guy tries to board and forget about any self-check kiosk" list. My military vets in class assure me the government's fifteen to twenty years ahead in the tech that I peck away at this evening. I only hope my tax dollars at work give my children a reason to sleep better at night, for the debt that they will inherit.


Anonymous said...

"the whole drinking and intellectual climate of 1945-55, considered the doldrums of Irish creative life"

From your review of 'Remembering how we stood'. "The doldrums of Irish creative life", wow! Have you read any of the Irish poetry or other literature from that time?


Fionnchú said...

Yes I have. Note "considered" the doldrums is in the context of those drinking at McDaid's. It's not my own judgment of an era when Francis Stuart, Flann O'Brien whatever he wrote as, Patrick Kavanagh, Liam O'Flatherty in both languages, Frank O'Connor, Sean O Faolain, Mary Lavin, or The Bell are contributed much to Irish intellectual life, albeit much of it from exile.