Responding to "Inherently Violent"
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Cassandra of Villainous Company asked me to respond to a piece by one Prof. Corey Robin, apparently an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College as well as CUNY's Graduate Center. I am, of course, always at Cassandra's service.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that I doubt the response will do much good. The piece is on the subject of war, and conservatives; in short, an assertion that conservatives have an inherent desire for war. I'll treat the question of war and joy, since the professor raises it. His evidence for his proposition, though, is simply out of line. He paints conservatives as war-mongers chiefly on the basis of a work by Edmund Burke, The Sublime and the Beautiful.
Here is our professor:
The mind must be quickened, the body exerted, the whole made taut and tense. What most arouses this heightened state of being is the confrontation with nonbeing....
The question for us, which Burke neither poses nor answers, is: What kind of political form entails this simultaneity of—or oscillation between—aggrandizement and annihilation? One possibility is hierarchy, with its twin requirements of submission and domination; the other is violence, particularly warfare, with its rigid injunction to kill or be killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are of great significance to conservatism as a theoretical tradition and historical practice.
Earlier in the piece he makes a joke about certain kinds of conservatives not reading. Yet even those conservatives who "don't read" past the chapter headings will sort out that this book of Burke's culminates in an extended study of poetry. Presumably one can write poetry under many different political systems; certainly it is a way of "confronting nonbeing," as anyone who has read teenager poetry knows.
It is poetry, not war or politics, that Burke is calling you towards here. The failure to recognize that is stunning for an academic mind supposedly trained to close and careful reading. There are many ways to meet the sublime without going to war. Horses are sublime, and deadly dangerous. They are also one of the great joys of life. They care nothing for politics, horses: and horsemen care little for it too, as long as it leaves them alone.
Nor is it a very radical claim: 'Let's just be sure we're playing by the rules, just as they were written. If we need to change them as we go along, that's fine: that's what Article V is for. Those are the rules for changing the rules. Otherwise, the rules mean what they meant when we agreed to them.' That's a highly conservative position, and one much in line with peace and order. Why wouldn't it be? Two things we know about the movement are that its members tend to be older, and that they tend to be middle class. Generally these groups want to preserve and stabilize systems, not engage in revolutions.
Now, I promised to talk about war and joy. Once upon a time I worked on a project that involved looking up old members of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps, who had worked together on a project. We tracked them down and interviewed them about what they'd done, the experience, and their lives since.
Every one of them said exactly the same thing: the CCC was the best experience of their lives, except for the Second World War. One of these men had been a POW, captured by the Nazis in Italy.
We remember also General Robert E. Lee's admonition: "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." Why is that?
I can't speak for others, but I have been twice to the war in Iraq. The experience of war is this: you work very, very hard. Everything is crucial, because lives turn on getting the details right. You spend the time with the same few other men, and develop deep friendships because you are all working together in a common cause. Extraneous things drop away, either because they are no longer important enough to merit spending time on them, or because the military arranges for them to be done so that you can concentrate on your work. Sometimes the enemy tries to kill you, and sometimes they succeed; but mostly there is work you have trained to do very well, and there are friends to share it with.
In other words, you are spending absolutely all of your time doing what you do best. You are doing what you do best in company with the closest friends you will ever have. An academic should recognize this description: it is Aristotle's description of happiness, eudaimonia. Of course it has joys. How could it not?
People don't go to war to experience the sublime. You can do that in your backyard: Kant's favorite example was the starry sky above you (and the moral law within you -- second critique, doctor, sort of toward the end; you'll find the third critique relevant as well). People who go to war don't do it to escape the tiresome nature of this life, but because they have things in this life they love and mean to defend. In doing so they take on a great responsibility, especially when and if they become involved in taking a life. They also carry the weight of memory for those who did not return. There are joys, but there is a high cost that we have paid as well.
The terrible things in war call us away from it, not toward it. They are the reason for putting it down, in spite of its joys. General Lee understood that; but I suppose it is out of fashion to listen to him.
In the comments, Mr. S wanted to talk more about violence itself. Here are my remarks:
If you want to talk about violence itself (whether in or out of war), I think you end up in the opposite place from the one that our professor tries to reach. He wants to say that violence is sublime as an idea, but not in reality:
"So long as the war on terror remains an idea—a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24—it is sublime. As soon as it becomes a reality, it can be as tedious as a discussion of the tax code or as cheerless as a trip to the DMV."
That is the opposite of the truth. Violence is sublime in Kant's sense, because it provokes that sense of pain he describes when your reason tries to grasp something and fails to be able to do it. In the case of the heavens, human reason can't fully assimilate the magnitude of creation. In the case of terrible violence, our reason also fails to master it. We don't understand. We can't understand. Our reason is not adequate. Our rational models, all the things we believed were true and reliable, fail in the face of these things.
In that sense, actual violence is the thing that is sublime. That's also why it can break men's minds.
David Bellavia's account of knife fighting in Fallujah is a good example of what Kant thought should happen when we come up against this reality: that we would experience a kind of reverence, which would lead us to become devoted to moral questions. Obviously that doesn't always happen. That, though, is another topic that we have treated at other times[.]