Sunday, March 21, 2010

My ten most influential books

I saw that Matt Yglesias had listed the ten books that had influenced his thinking the most, and I wanted to try the same thing.

This leaves out something that was really important for me in my youth: the political and cultural periodicals such as the Washington Monthly, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and the Atlantic Monthly. I started reading most of these in high school, some thirty years ago, and that reading was the key influence in shaping many of my concrete political views.

Most of these books are important because they became a constant touchpoint of reflection. In general, they changed and challenged the frame through which I looked at things more than they changed my mind on any specific thing.

  1. Alisdair Macintyre, After Virtue. Macintyre was such a revelation for me because he demonstrated the necessity of thinking about the social and institutional contexts of ethics, but in the long run the work was most influential for the way I think about art and aesthetics.
  2. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. Granted that the the historical divisions Foucault draws are a little too neat and crisp (an issue I was aware of even when I first read the book in college), the pointed questions he raises about knowledge, power, and institutions still shape the way that I think about policy questions.
  3. Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land. This is really cheating, since I had long before read the original articles in the Atlantic which grew into this book. In any case, it really did drive home to me the significance for social policy of the stickiness of social and cultural influences across generations.
  4. Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity. Despite the title, it is not religion which made this book important to me, but it's explanation of the ways that community matters for ethics.
  5. Johns Lachs, Intermediate Man. This short, overlooked work has kept me thinking about the costs of mediated action in modern society ever since I read it in college.
  6. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters. In addition to how it helped to form my appreciation of the central place of race and civil rights in recent American history, this book also gave me plenty else to chew on. Branch's mordant illustrations of journalists' captivity to conservative spin on civil rights informed my understanding of media long before there were blogs.
  7. Christoper Alexander, et al, The Oregon Experiment. This fortuitously discovered book first introduced me to Alexander's work, which has been the key influence in my thinking about architecture and urban design. The key insights for me are an anthropological approach to assessing the success of buildings and an incrementalist approach to design.
  8. Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. I only read this in the last year, but it has been a huge influence in how I think about the how to deal with imperfect progressive party and interest group institutions over the last year.
  9. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Although I never read the whole book until a year ago, I had read bits and pieces of it for two decades before that. The answers Blumenberg gives about the nature of modernity actually matter less for my development than his explicit methodological reliance on philosophical anthropology. This work was the entry way for me to learning something about the German tradition in this field, and if anything the introduction by Robert Wallace was nearly as influential as Blumenberg's text.
  10. V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River. I read this for the first time when I was just fifteen, after seeing a review in Time, and something of its vision and its anger has haunted me since.
  11. Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America. Sowell's well-supported argument for the persistence of social and cultural disparities across generation has shaped my support for social policies to reduce inequality (although Sowell inexplicably fails to draw this natural conclusion to his argument).

All right, so my list goes to eleven. Cue the Spinal tap jokes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Chapter 1, "Seafaring as a Transgression of Boundaries", and 2, "What the Shipwrecked Person is Left with"

Two presuppositions of the ancient use of seafaring as a metaphor for life (8)

1. The seashore is a natural boundary of man's activity.

2. The sea lacks order; it is arbitrary and (in Christian terms) even evil.

Hesiod sees commerce and a desire for gain behind the crossing of this seemingly natural boundary, which opens such voyages to a critique based on alleged immoderation . (9)

Horace portrays shipwreck as a restoration of a natural order where the elements are separated, and man belongs only to the element of earth -- an order that has been upended by man's seafaring. (11-12)

The philosopher Aristippus is shipwrecked on Rhodes. He sees geometrical figures drawn in the sand, and realizes that he is close to civilization -- and he proceeds to go into town and earn his return cost by teaching. He proclaims the lesson of this is to possess no more than what can be saved from a shipwreck, because that cannot be touched by war or turmoil. (12)

Montaigne takes up this theme of what can be salvaged from shipwreck with his dictum "Certainly a man of understanding has lost nothing, if he has himself." According to Blumenberg, this is to be understood not as a refuge into interiority from external pressure, but as self-possession gained through self-examination. (14)

Montaigne's ethics through nautical metaphors: caution (don't stray far from port), awareness of bias towards subjectivity (like the optical illusion of the receding shore from a ship going to sea), steadiness (hold a steady course). (15)

Montaigne as spectator of political tumult. Avoids commitment to a cause as far as possible, because that would put him in danger. "One can almost feel how the skeptic approaches the the secure position of spectator, by raising higher and higher the conditions under which he would still be prepared to allow himself to go down, in what was then a thirty-year-old political situation." Takes pleasure in being a spectator to turmoil, although he feels compassion for those who suffer - compares it to watching a play. (16) (is it relief at being spared or the cathartic emotions of internalizing others suffering that create the pleasure?)

Montaigne does not use Lucretius' description of the shipwreck with a spectator to define his political situation. Blumenberg notes that he has already used it to support his thesis that nothing in nature is useless -- not even uselessness. Here being a spectator -- which amounts to a capacity to keep one's distance -- stands for uselessness, but this distance keeps the spectator alive. In particular, the ability to take malicious pleasure in being able to survive while others perish fosters the ability to stand apart -- and survive. This example is also part of a more general thesis argued by Montaigne: that human institutions require vices in order to work. (17)

Goethe's describes his predicament -- both generally and with regard to the reception of his theory of colors -- as the survivor -- in the latter case the sole survivor -- of a shipwreck. (18) For now this goes nowhere and we take up ...

Pascal's innovative twist on the seafaring as a metaphor for life -- "you are embarked." This dictum, which sets a condition for his wager about belief, excludes the cautious, skeptical path of staying in port recommended by Montaigne. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche follows this up with a further condition -- we have destroyed the land behind us as well, so there is nothing to be done but sail. Yet further, in Zarathustra, Nietzsche adopts the metaphor that not only are we already embarked, but already shipwrecked as well. (19)

Prince de Ligne -- an 18th century precursor to seeing metaphorical shipwreck as a primordial condition, at least of his experience. He claims to have always sought out the reefs, but always to have been saved by hanging on to a plank. (20)

Nietzsche on freely rearranging the debris of the shipwreck as a metaphor for intellectual liberation. (20)

Franz Overbeck on Nietzsche's endeavor as an existentially unavoidable sea voyage (21)

Nietzsche's metaphor for science -- the shipwrecked person finding dry land. Notable that the metaphor is not the spectator's relationship to land. The point is that science, like solid land to the shipwrecked, is a change, and even an unexpected one. Science provides a secure ground for further research -- something that had not been provided by man's thought throughout history. (21-22)

Nietzsche's use of voyages of Columbus and his discovery of a new world as an analogy with his philosophizing. (22)

Nietzsche on understanding Epicurus -- takes Epicurus' happiness to be that of the sufferer who has found serenity, like the seafarer who has come through the storm to find calm seas. Relationship of subject rather than (as with Lucretius) spectator to the storm-tossed ship. Nietzsche regarded the image of shipwreck with spectator as alien to Greek thinking, which Blumenberg calls a "profound insight." (22-23)

But is Nietzsche's insight true? Blumenberg brings up the anonymous Greek distich: "I have found the port. Farewell, Hope and Fortune!/ You have played enough with me. Now play with other men!" (Inveni portum. Spes et fourtuna valete!/ Sat me lusistis. Ludite nunc alios!) He considers its reception in both Casanova and in Alain Lesage's character Gil Blas di Santillana.
In both cases, he finds that the distich lends itself to leaving contemplation of the struggles of other with the game of fate-- the role of spectator -- out of the picture. (23-26)

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 9, "The Expulsion of the British"

The British wanted out of their costly war in San Domingo, but they were still eager to cause France trouble and deny them the colony if possible. Maitland, their local commander, tried to entice Toussaint into declaring independence, promising that the British Navy would protect San Domingo from any French expeditionary force.

The Directory wanted to keep San Domingo for France, but with Sonthonax's deportation they suspected Toussaint of angling for independence. They sent Hedouville as the new governor to wrest control from Toussaint, and gave him a free hand to intrigue with the mulattoes under the unreliable Rigaud if necessary.

James portrays Toussaint's response as that of a well-informed and cautious statesman. He shows that Toussaint saw through the British offer, realizing that protection would last only as long as England's war with France. He negotiated the British departure from the West Province on favorable terms, and, fully understanding his position of strength, went on to extract full evacuation. James argues, moreover, that Toussaint understood the threat of intrigue with the mulattoes, and had done his best to forestall this by meeting and working with Rigaud. In the end, Hedouville won over Rigaud despite these efforts.

Hedouville forced a break with Toussaint over the latter's pardon of white planters who had fought for the British (and, not insignificantly, the black soldiers who had fought for them). Toussaint resigned rather than bringing on civil war. Hedouville moved aggressively to consolidate his power. He tried to impose limits on the liberty of black laborers and he began to replace black troops with white ones. Hedouville finally came to grief over dismissing one of Toussaint's old subordinates, Moise, from his command. Toussaint came out against Hedouville, and sent the troops under Dessalines to Le Cap to drive him out. Hedouville fled, but on his way out urged Rigaud to defy Toussaint's authority.