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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, January 26, 2015


I've argued in JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 4 that the proper analysis of all literary stories, realistic or escapist, cannot be judged purely in terms of their ethical stance, which pertains to Jung's "principle of serious work," Thus, though Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND lacks the ethical gravitas of Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST, the two bear kinship in terms of their imaginative power and mythic resonance.

By saying this, I did not dismiss all criteria of moral-ethical judgment from consideration, and I would have no problem in stating that LIGHT IN AUGUST is a novel that is morally superior to GONE WITH THE WIND in terms of how each story deals with the topic they have in common; the American South's relationship to its African-American underclass. At the same time, this ethical judgment is not an absolute one, but one grounded in perspectivism. I've framed the perspectivist argument with respect to ethics in the LET FREEDOM RIDE series, concluding with this observation from PART 4:

Ergo, pluralist freedom is the free will to choose-- even when one makes the wrong choice-- with the knowledge that *the wrong choice always has the potential to be the right choice in another set of circumstances.*

Perspectivism is often confused with relativism. A relativist would say of the American slave tradition that it was only wrong to those who were oppressed by slavery, or to those who had personal reasons for opposing it; slavery would not be wrong for those who made an institution of it.  In other words, relativism says simply that there is no single meaning in any ethical statement.

A perspectivist, however, asserts multiple meanings, as Nietzsche does in THE WILL TO POWER:

In so far as the word "knowledge" has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable [emphasis in original] otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.—"Perspectivism."

This emphasis on the many ways in which ethical meaning-statements are both multiple and "interpretable" offers some similarity with the modern notion of intersubjectivity, which I've defined elsewhere on this blog.

But I'll return to my earlier statement that "the wrong choice always has the potential to be the right choice in another set of circumstances."  Obviously, if I validate Faulkner's view of the wrongness of the institution of slavery and its heritage, while I reject Mitchell's validation of same, I'm taking the not-at-all-risky position that American slavery was the wrong choice in the original historical set of circumstances. But in what "other set of circumstances" might an institution like slavery have been justified?

One set of conditions might be the use of slavery as a retaliation for past infractions, rather than the exploitation of a weaker opponent.  Historically slavery seems to originate as a process of taking booty during military conflicts. One tribe makes war upon another, and the winning tribe takes members of the losing tribe as chattel. If the winner is the original aggressor in the military action, then the taking of slaves would not be retaliatory in nature. However, if the original aggressor is the one who is overthrown, the taking of slaves would be defensible in that the winner may need to impress on the original aggressor-tribe the message "don't mess with us." Of course this rationale would be cold comfort if a given person were enslaved yet held no active responsibility for the aggression.  But at that level of cultural development, those are the breaks.

In recent times, the infamous "Charlie Hebdo" incident illustrates another instance of "multiple meanings."  For the magazine's editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, the purpose of satirizing Muhammad-- a satire that included portraying the religious leader's appearance-- his purpose was to remove power from Muslim terrorists by rendering their religious extremism banal, saying that, "We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism."

Obviously terrorists were not about to tolerate this strategic dismantling of their religiously cloaked ideology. Yet for many Muslims not involved in terrorism, they still regarded the satire as an insult to their religion, and some have come close to intimating that the cartoonists got what they asked for. It's likely that this defensiveness springs from a sense of cultural marginalization.

Now, whereas slavery-- whether racially based or not-- is rooted in economic exploitation, both of these positions are more in the nature of a "clash of cultural priorities."  I favor the notion that all forms of artistic expression deserve to be given complete freedom to tear down idols and ideologies, though naturally I have my own opinions as to what is or is not good satire.  I speculate that the proponents of "they asked for it" are not just defensive, they are culturally "on the defensive" and that their defense of the non-representation of Muhammad's image-- which I'm told is not unilaterally observed even in Muslim lands-- will not persevere in the face of advancing secularism.

Nevertheless, a perspectivist orientation might be able to appreciate the origins of the conflicting positions. Even though I can appreciate Charbonnier's ideology up to a point, I have my doubts that his project of banalizing any religion will yield the fullest understanding of the many meanings behind human culture.  


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