What is human?

Note: This essay was my contribution for an issue of the Turkish publication Sabah Ülkesi on the very broad topic “What is human?” Knowing the text would be translated, I aimed for a simple style, but readers of Turkish will have to judge how much I facilitated the translator’s work.

When philosophers and theologians attempt to define what is human, they almost always end up talking about what is not human. That is to say, most definitions of the human proceed via contrast or negation. So one might say that a human being is not simply an animal, nor is it a god, an angel, or a jinn. In this procedure, we learn that animals are lower than us, and gods, angels, and jinn are higher—but what we actually are remains a mystery.

Continue reading “What is human?”

Against “the political”

Everyone knows that according to Aristotle, there is a sphere called “the political.” It is dependent upon but fully distinct from the economic, which is the realm of necessity and slavery. By contrast, the political represents the realm of freedom and full human dignity; it is the chief end of man. For all its faults, Aristotle’s account is taken as normative by a powerful line of political theory that runs up through Arendt and Wendy Brown, among many others.

Returning to Book 1 of the Politics in my class after engaging with a range of Greek texts (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides) and Nicole Loraux’s The Divided City, I am deeply, deeply skeptical. First of all, I am not sure why the idealized self-image of Athens needs to be normative for all future political thought — especially because Aristotle’s rosy picture of a peaceful, natural hierarchy presided over by free and equal men is obviously a sheer fantasy with almost no relation to the actual highly conflictual history of Athenian institutions.

Second, the teleology of the political serves to justify a whole laundry list of evils. It legitimates elitism, strict patriarchy, and slavery. It serves as a sign of Greek cultural superiority — because weirdly, this “natural” institutional structure has never managed to appear among the barbarians — and justifies imperialism. I understand why early modern political theory would latch onto this structure; it is less clear why a contemporary critical political theory would take it as normative.

Finally, Aristotle’s account empties the political of nearly all content. Division of labor, gender relations, economic exchange, and even some wars (against people who are “naturally slaves”) are not sites of political contestation for Aristotle — they have a “natural” form that serves as a support for the political. Aside from war, the only thing that really results from the profound dignity and freedom of the political is public displays and monuments to glorify the city. So the city is great because it grants 10-15% of the population the freedom to bring glory to the city. I’m unimpressed.

“The political” in Aristotle’s account is a classic empty master-signifier. It’s good because it’s good. It’s the goal of everything because he says so. And this connection becomes clearer when we compare Book 1 of the Politics to Pericles’ funeral oration — which is open propaganda, arguing that Athens is great because it provides us all with such amazing opportunities to contribute to its greatness. Was Athens really so great and unsurpassable, though? Is a slave society that kept its women trapped in the home, dominated over its neighbors, and wrote really cool plays really normative for all subsequent politics?

Why Binge-Watchable Serial Drama is Not a New Genre

In the Poetics, Aristotle devotes significant attention to two modes of storytelling: tragedy and epic. The former is a self-contained, naturally unfolding story, which Aristotle views as the best form of narrative art. He is so fascinated with tragedy, in fact, that he claims that epic is basically trying but failing to be what tragedy is — it wants to be telling such a taut, immersive story, but it gets distracted by a need to bulk out the text with inessential episodes.

In my view, Aristotle misconstrues what epic is trying to do. The episodes aren’t a distraction, they’re the whole point. The overarching story provides a narrative and thematic frame for the episodes, allowing multiple stories to come together into a larger, cohesive whole. The frame narrative is necessarily sparse and even boring, as Aristotle’s famous reductive summary of the Odyssey illustrates, but it’s necessary to keep the episodes from being purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments.

At its best, binge-watchable serial drama is trying to be an epic. Within each season, we have an overarching plot that makes room for several narratively and thematically related episodes. The story of Don Draper’s secret identity gives us a window into the worlds of Peggy and all the other beloved supporting cast, just as Tony Soprano’s quest to become the undisputed boss opens up a narrative world full of fascinating characters.

I’ve written before about Main Character Syndrome, the phenomenon of viewers becoming bored and even resentful of the main character of the framing narrative, and I believe that the fundamentally epic structure of binge-watchable serial drama explains why that is such a constant pitfall. It’s a difficult balance to keep the framing narrative thin enough to allow for rich episodic side-trips but compelling enough that you don’t get impatient with it. Arguably even Homer fails on this point — once it comes time to settle accounts with the primary story of Odysseus coming home to claim what’s his (the beginning of book 13), it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

The balance is easier to strike within a single season, as the Mad Men and Sopranos examples make clear. As the narrative is indefinitely extended, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain tension and interest in the framing device, and the whole enterprise threatens to devolve into a soap opera — a sequence of purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments. Even in the best case, each season must perform a “retcon” to reopen the completed stories of the previous seasons and make the new larger whole feel cohesive. In my opinion, Mad Men was more successful at this than The Sopranos, but the seams are always going to show to some extent. Again, we could see Homer as falling victim to this same problem with his attempt at a sequel to the Iliad — a problem that becomes all the more difficult when Virgil steps in as the show-runner for the third season.

In short, then, binge-watchable serial drama is not a new narrative genre. When it’s done well, it’s epic, and when it’s done poorly, it’s a soap opera. An epic show may devolve into a soap opera, and I suppose it’s conceivable that a formless soap opera could really get its act together and pull off an epic season. I can’t think of an example of the latter, though the former is well-attested.

What’s increasingly getting lost, however, is the art of the self-contained episode — all the moreso now that movies are trying to reinvent the wheel of serialized TV drama instead of sticking to their more natural competency of self-contained stories that at their best reach the coherence and dramatic tension of tragedy.

A thought on catharsis

Joe Sachs is the Official Aristotle Translator of Shimer College. I especially enjoy his rendering of the Poetics, which pushes back against traditional moralistic readings of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. One element of such a reading is the view that Aristotle sees tragedy as playing some kind of role in purging the viewer’s emotions, which is normally how catharsis is understood — undergoing emotions as a way of “crying it out” or something like that.

The word katharsis only occurs once, in the midst of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy around 1449b20: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action of serious stature and complete, having magnitude, in language made pleasing in distinct forms in its separate parts, imitating people acting and not using narration, accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing of these states of feeling.” Or in Greek: “ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδῶν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι᾽ ἀπαγγελίας, δι᾽ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν.”

Sachs suitably leaves it ambiguous what kind of “cleansing” is at play here, and it strikes me that a more natural reading of the passage is that it is the states of feeling that are being purged, in themselves, not that the viewer is being purged of them. In tragedy, you experience pity and fear as such, in their pure state, purged of any merely idiosyncratic elements relating to your own experience. To play on a Kantian term, tragedy gives you access to non-pathological pathos. And this experience does not produce any moral or therapeutic result, but merely an “awe-striking impact.”

Tragedy doesn’t teach you morality, because its effect depends on you already knowing the moral norms. It doesn’t seek to make you a better person, because it depends on you being a middling sort of person. It just gives you an experience of awe-striking impact — which is to say, pleasure.

You want full communism? You better sublate work, bitch

I wouldn’t usually crosspost something about Britney here, but her new song does seem to have tapped in to a current interest in the topic of work; this piece in the Guardian is typical, arguing that the song reflects a contemporary, “religious” commitment to the value of work. That’s not what the song sounds like to me; it’s not so much capitalist ideology as capitalist id. While the official capitalist ethic proposes the necessity of hard work as the ground of equality, the capitalist id glories in the reality that you have to work while (indeed, because), capital doesn’t. Hence Britney’s imperious “work, bitch!” with the subtext that, work as hard as we like, we’ll never be as good as her; and doubtless we’ve all come to terms in our own way with the fact that we’re not Britney and never will be. But, if we follow the insight of the Neue Marx Lektüre that capital is the historical subject of capitalism, we might find in the id of this historical subject some useful indications of the mutations happening to the role of work in contemporary capitalism, and thereby come up with a more dialectical anti-work politics.We need this dialectical approach because of work’s contradictory position within capitalism: official capitalist ideology extols the virtues of work, but capital hates work and wants to minimize the amount of wage labour it employs, while at the same time wage labour is the source of capital’s profits and so ineliminable. So capital is itself anti-work, but in a contradictory and destructive way. It seems to me that our response to this shouldn’t be the social-democratic one of attempting to re-valorise work (which just embeds us further within capital’s contradictory attitude to work), but instead to try and trace capital’s anti-work position out past capital. Continue reading “You want full communism? You better sublate work, bitch”

What is education actually for?

Among readers of this blog, I’m confident that there is a consensus on what education is not for: namely, it is not exclusively for job preparation. While working is part of life and education has to contribute to that, I doubt that anyone here is willing to say that education should be geared solely toward work.

That said, then, what is it actually for? Continue reading “What is education actually for?”

Plato or Aristotle: Who’s better?

Since the New Year, I’ve been reading some hardcore Plato and Aristotle, working my way through the Republic, the Nicomachean Ethics (in progress), and the Politics (still to come) as part of my class prep. In general, Shimer has led to a major uptick in my consumption of both authors, and in the case of Aristotle it has amounted to a massive crash-course in things that I “should’ve read” long ago.

It seems to me that Aristotle is more authentically dialogical in his approach than Plato, despite the format of their extant works. Perhaps it’s the difference between exposing ignorance (Plato) and looking for the “grain of truth” in all the received opinions (Aristotle). The result is a different kind of tedium characteristic of both authors — it can be hard to summon up the will power to follow yet another thorough consideration of various fine distinctions (Aristotle), but my eyes just glaze over through the repeated “Of course, Socrates!” sections in Plato.

At the same time, experience shows me that Plato’s dialogues are much better for generating in-class discussion than Aristotle’s texts, so what do I know?