Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Criticism, Literature, and Forgiveness

I've been thinking lately about the seeming absence of any scholarly treatment of the subject of guilt. More directly, I am disappointed about the apparent unwillingness of academics to turn the lens of judgment back upon themselves. To be sure, academics love to fault "academics" in general, even for petty ethical offenses, but it is a very rare case where a reputable scholar confronts the problem of personal culpability.

I have a theory about why this fundamental element of psychology is generally avoided scholars that goes like this: we have developed plenty of suggestions for judgment (moral, ethical, aesthetic), but none (or few) on forgiveness. Consequently, admission of personal culpability seems to be an irremediable action.

So the indignant academic goes around pointing his bony, accusatory index finger at everything and everyone under the sun without ever faulting himself.

Part of this is philosophy's fault. Philosophy has always been ill-equipped to deal with time in relation to ethics. That is, the philosopher makes thoroughly informed judgment about the moment of (un)ethical action, but has little to say about the causes or consequences that frame the scene. This is where the narrative comes in, and why I will defend fiction as a necessary mode of thinking. The almost inhuman judgment of philosophy declares, "Thou art unjust," and marches onward toward the tr-th (or whatever philosophy is doing these days). On the other hand, fiction often witnesses the unjust act early in a sequence of events, and does not fail to follow the unjust actor, even if he recognizes and regrets the injustice of his action.

Here's a philosophical example:
Scene: One person beats another person up.
Judgment: Unjust.

Now consider an alternative example, made literary:
Scene: When I was 10-years old, I used to beat my 7-year old brother up when my mom left us alone. Now, at age 29, I realize that that was immoral, and I have sincerely apologized to my brother. He has told me that I am forgiven, but sometimes, I still feel bad about it.
Judgment: Somewhere between unjust and "that's life."

Is this an important difference? Does philosophy address this difference--can it? There are other things I could confess, but I don't want to spend all my nickels in one store. Let it be understood, though: I, the author of Q-Majin?, have been unjust. Unfortunately, I suppose I don't yet qualify as a "reputable scholar."

(P.S. -- reading Hawthorne might have something to do with all of this. More later.)


Anonymous said...

I would define "liberal arts" as the part of the university where grades are given with the assumption that there are no "correct" answers, only really good opinions.

That being said, philosophy isn't really a liberal art, is it? Philosophers tend to find "right-ness" by name's 99% artificial, bullshit.

A typical conversation might be:

Person A: How is the word "afternoon" related to the actual thing where the sun rises at its highest point?

Person B: Well, according to Saussure blah blah blah Kant...

Person A (on exam): I tend to disagree with both Saussure and Kant...

Person B (grading exam): Wrong. I don't care about your opinion. I only care that you know what a bunch of other people's opinions are...preferably people that are dead.

Person A: But won't that prevent liberal thinking?

Person B: No, it will promote liberal thinking by restating what has come before and then making slight, bullshitty variances that reference the internet rather than books.

Person A: Oh, you mean it's like reinventing the wheel but this time putting gold paint on the spokes?

Person C: Exactly. You can't ever have an original fucking idea.

Person D (frat boy): An original fucking idea? You a new position? I've thought of plenty of those.

Person A: But back to the matter at hand...are we saying that there will never be any more great individual minds? That we will only progress as a group?

Person B: That's the plan.

Person C: But why not just plug our brains into the Matrix?

Person A: See, even you are using a metaphor of something that has come before...proof that no one can come up with an original idea. The Wachowski Brothers already did that.

Person D: That movie was sweet. But don't all of these theories simply acknowledge the existence of linear time?

Person E (poet):

Person F: It's the song that never just goes...

Casey said...


Anonymous said...

All of these people live in my mind, and are quite cozy there.

Monica said...

Oh, good lord, I have lots to say here, but I am trying to finish my stupid letter . . . I'll be back.