Attack The Block

My take can be summarized by the following:

Also, if we haven't met, I am basically a watered-down version of this guy:


A Serious Man

You read this one at your peril. Will Self's complaint that the Coens are simply mischievous formalists doesn't quite cut it here. If anything, A Serious Man gives some insight into why they are so difficult to pin down. This is a movie about a guy battered by the winds of fortune asking God that big question... why? And of course, there's no answer beyond the patronizing and pathetic "be a good boy". If life doesn't give you any answers, why should films?

So the gnomic folk-tale beginning plays hopeful reason against fearful superstition, but doesn't fall down on either side. Fast-forward to the present, Larry Gopnik is a physics professor that loves math but doesn't quite understand the fables used to explain it. Unfortunately, life isn't solved as easily as sums are: his wife wants a divorce, a student is trying to bribe (then sue) him, his neighbour is annexing bits of his lawn. Gopnik tries to stay on the straight and narrow as events overwhelm him. Should he do nothing, reacting passively to each new demand, as he always has done? Or should he take action, abandon categorical imperatives and bend with the winds of fortune? Cruel irony that the latter step summons the storms of infernal retribution. Gopnik is not as constant as Job, and so God exacts vengeance. Rightly? Or is adherence to ideals in this imperfect world complete madness? What does it mean to be a 'serious' man? No answers.


Except that maybe the identification of divine justice with a school bully you owe money to nails the masochism of dutiful living dead. My reading of the gnomic folk-tale is anti-miraculous (disciple of Hume that I am), although the "ghost"'s behaviour is certainly strange. The religious authorities that are appealed to do not provide satisfaction or solace: life's either full of unseen potential or a big joke. Larry's acquiescence is pushed to breaking point, and I get the feeling that the Coens want him to break... the rest of his family don't care for him, why should he? I definitely fall down on one side, and I'll risk presumption in suggesting that the Coens probably fall the same way, although they are pretty reticent about it.


'Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour.


'Should a traveller, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted; men, who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies.' - David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
'It argues more wisdom to contrive at first the fabrication of the world with such perfect foresight that, of itself, and by its proper operation, it may serve all the purposes of provenance, than if the great Creator were obliged every moment to adjust its parts, and animate by his breath all the wheels of that stupendous machine.' - David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


An Education

Fish Tank in suburban London in the 1960s, basically. Class shame makes the parents of bright young Carey Mulligan complicit in her seduction by suave but creepy Peter Sarsgaard, a man ten years her age. If he's got the papes (and regardless of how he gets them) it's all gravy. Mulligan -- brilliant, confident and bored out of her mind -- wants an out. Oxford used to be it, until Sarsgaard turned up with his nightclubs and restaurants and fun. That's what Britain is missing, Jenny tells her teachers. What's all this education for if you end up with a boring life? She learns tho, innit... there are no short-cuts to fulfillment. The point: you don't get yr education in school.

Fine performances all round. Alfred Molina could have just delivered a caricature, but his crazed outburst about money not growing on trees is genuinely shocking, and the repentance at the end is exquisitely poignant. Great work also from Rosamond Pike as the street-wise doll who cannot quite manage refinement. My love for Olivia Williams knows no bounds, and she's stellar in the otherwise generic role of inspirational teacher. That final scene she has with Mulligan is a total tear-fest, although I confess to being a sucker for this kind of aspirational stuff (when Battlestar Galactica did it I cried buckets). Anyways, the whole thing would have fallen apart if Carey Mulligan wasn't so freakin excellent. New Keira, for serious. I was wondering where the next one would appear. Can't wait to see her kicking ass and taking names in some upcoming rollercoaster-based blockbuster... but she'll go far without my career advice.

The film does get a little BBC at times, some scenes are borderline hack-work. Nick Hornby's script is at its best when it sticks to restraint and comedy. But, you know... niggles. iPlayer it. You shall not be left disappointed.



Rousseau wrote about everything (music, education, nature, religion). These notes are just about his political thought, for which you have to go to the Origin of Inequality. This starts by consciously putting aside the facts and going for conjecture and hypotheticals. The particular thought experiment Rousseau describes is isolating man from society and seeing what you have left: a solitary animal sharing two instincts common to many animals: self-preservation (sustenance, procreation and indolence) and pity for the suffering of other creatures. This thought experiment quickly turns into conceptual history. Rousseau identifies man's nature by removing him from society, and then claims that this isolation is man's natural condition: a rather sneaky way of introducing the crucial, unsubstantiated (and mistaken) centre-piece of his theory.

What separates men from other animals is perfectability, or free will. Men can use their reason to replace immediate instincts with longer term objectives. We are not slaves of our passions. We can go beyond our natures. Rousseau relates this ability with our self-preservation instinct. Perfectability is the 'source of all our misfortunes' because as we become more rational about securing our survival, we increasingly move away from our pity instinct, which is the source of all our social virtues (although this is in tension with statements made elsewhere, see below). Where do these alternative longer term goals come from? Our imaginations. We desire things not immediately within our grasp, things we don't really need. This conceptual freedom (call it positive liberty) is a double-edged sword.

Perfectability is triggered by necessity and inspires reflection, prudence and innovation (we create bows, fishing rods and traps). Using these tools, we become aware of our superiority compared to other animals, and experience pride for the first time. Next, we notice that other humans use similar techniques. At this point, we associate loosely to achieve shared goals, but if our private interest changes, we immediately abandon the collective. Loyalty is weak.

Next phase: technological advance and natural disasters create tighter bonds between humans. We get huts, villages, language and family life. Dependence on tools for survival is the first yoke we impose on ourselves, originally our bodies were strong enough to provide us with everything we needed. Rousseau considers independence to be another kind of freedom (call it negative liberty). Splitting Rousseau's freedom into these two parts helps make sense of Rousseau's confusing ideas about political liberty.

Society means comparisons between individuals, and the creation of ideas of merit and beauty. Some become better then others, people start to have preferences. This creates feelings of vanity and shame, which in turn can strengthen into contempt and envy. But while such anti-social egoistic feelings are restrained by the pity impulse, we are at the golden age of human existence: midway on the journey from indolence and peace to competition and war. We are independent from other men, and our wills have not entirely quashed our benevolent instincts. Negative and positive liberties are in balance.

The next step is another advance in positive freedom, another reduction in negative freedom. Metallurgy and agriculture inaugurate the division of labour and property. We become dependent on other men, and natural inequalities (of age, strength, intelligence) start producing unequal outcomes. Those more able get more. Feelings of preference become more pronounced, men have to start appearing to be superior in order to survive. Ambition and emulation completely obscure natural qualities. Pity is forgotten. The contempt of the rich and the envy of the poor lead to incessant war.

This is halted by the social contract. The rich scam the poor into establishing property by law in exchange for peace. Where there is less inequality, the contract will produce more democratic forms of government. Rousseau's project is to make the contract and the law preserve liberty and virtue. Because if nothing prevents the acquisitiveness (the positive liberty) of the rich, revolutions and contracts will increasingly barter away the (negative) liberty of the many for peace, until there is only slavery left: a new state of nature with one all powerful tyrant -- a new equality were justice and morality are eliminated once more.

How to prevent this from happening? I'll avoid the plans in the Social Contract, which are confusing. Look at the Letter to Geneva which opens the Origin of Inequality. In that city-state, rulers and ruled have one interest, everyone knows each other, there is no conquering spirit, neither are conquerers attracted to it. The danger there is that the people don't trust their magistrates: the former need to recognize that obedience is in their true interest.

The constitutional proposals for Corsica and Poland help explain this attitude. Corsica is perfect for developing and maintaining independence: it just needs an autarkic agricultural economy. Division of labour and trade means dependence and subjection. Instead, citizen farmers should be happy in their mediocrity, fiercely disciplined, fit and healthy. As Rousseau puts it: better to make bad use of fields than bad use of men. The rejection of modern commercial values will deter conquest. Have people dispersed equally throughout the territory, which will avoid combination and faction: extreme decentralization with a few virtuous elected individuals in charge.

Rousseau's proposals for Poland is the best place to figure out what the general will (Rousseau's definition of 'virtue') really means: recognizing the community interest as your own interest. It is not the sum of private interests (which are irreconcilable), but creating a sense of common good to set against centrifugal private wills. What this ultimately means is patriotism. This can be encouraged by making the country's cultural life (dress, festivals, religion) more distinctive. Education (emphasizing the country's laws and history) is also crucial in making citizens feel uncomfortable anywhere outside the motherland. Patriotism, rather than guns or money, is enough for international security: Russia may swallow Poland up, but she will not be able to digest it. Poles will continue fighting Vietcong-style until they are free.

Rousseau rejects the idea of returning to that prehistoric golden age. Our pity instinct is too far gone for that to work. Patriotism replaces it by redirecting the modern feeling of vanity away from self-preservation and towards selfless activity. But patriotism and virtue can only thrive in enclosed environments where the community knows and can monitor each other. Emulation is given a patriotic mould. Public esteem is bought not with wealth or beauty but with duty to the common good. The regulating function of spectatorship is diluted in large countries, which have to rely on a Hobbesian Leviathan to avoid anarchy. True liberty (the balance between independence and perfectability) can only be found in small republics such as Geneva.


Aristotle's Politics

The previous post ended on the notion that Aristotle's attitude could be described as more authoritarian than Plato's, by which I meant that for Plato the goal was a harmonious community, for Aristotle it was the happiness of philosophers. In fact, for both, the two are related. But I think the difference in attitude is interesting, and puts into question the conception of Aristotle as some kind of democrat.

Aristotle's Politics begins where his Nicomachean Ethics left off. Associations, like everything else, aim at some good. The family provides for the daily material needs of each member. The village can ensure a broader range of material needs. The city can deliver self-sufficiency and the good life. Man is a political animal in that he cannot fully exercise his capacities in isolation: contemplation requires a moderate fortune (wealth must not turn into an end) and slaves. The city structures society so that those capable of the human virtues are able to demonstrate them.

Most are incapable of the human virtues. Like children, it is in their interest to be ruled. Natural slaves are identified simply as those people capable of being enslaved. Strength is a virtue. Those capable of winning wars and enslaving others deserve to do so. Slaves do not have the ability to deliberate (and so identify what is right in each circumstance), and even if they did, they lack the power to act according to what their reason suggests. Women can deliberate, but Aristotle claims this faculty lacks 'authority'. Women can be as rational as men, but their emotional nature disqualifies them from the opportunity of fulfillment.

Most of Aristotle's emphasis is on association through necessity, as a means to ensure survival and more broadly, the conditions for a philosophical life. However, he does concede that people also have a social impulse separate from self-preservation, which would suggest that fulfillment can also be found in perfecting that capacity and desire, i.e. in the political life.

The ambiguous relationship between intellectual and practical virtues is demonstrated by the fact that Aristotle provides two models for the best form of polity in his Politics, one ideal and one more realistic (it should be noted that the work's provenance and structure is not certain). We'll start with the latter.

The successful community has to ensure the common good (as the family does) rather than the interests of rulers (as Aristotle admits is the case between masters and slaves). The statement about slaves here is in tension with the one above. More generally, Aristotle is torn between having to preserve the common good and having to protect the interests of those capable of being philosophers. Ultimately, it is in the interests of contemplative men to have a stable society around them that provides the leisure needed for their inquiries, but this part of the work is mostly concerned with ensuring that stability.

Reason, prudence (as well as justice) demands that the excellent (those who would preserve the common good), should rule, rather than the well-born, the wealthy, or the many. If only one man exceeds all others in practical virtue, he should be king and the association will be a monarchy. If one man rules according to his private interest, then the association is a tyranny. Similarly, aristocracies are ruled by the few who are 'best', while oligopolies by the rich in their own interest. Constitutional governments are possible when the many have excellent qualities (usually of a military kind). Democracies are ruled by the poor multitude in their interest.

Aristotle argues that the many can rule well -- they can put a broader range of qualities in the services of the community. Deliberation in a group also has the effect of cooling passions. Aristotle is more lukewarm about rule by the poor -- they can merely identify good rulers. But if the community has a a large poor population, they will resent exclusion from political decision-making, and so they must at least be allowed to vote.

Aristotle lists the forms of government from best to worst:
  1. Monarchy (one is pre-eminently virtuous)
  2. Aristocracy (few are pre-eminently virtuous)
  3. Constitutional Government (many possess at least military virtue)
  4. Democracy (poor)
  5. Oligarchy (rich)
  6. Tyranny (self-interested king)
In an oligarchy, the rich are leisured, can devote time to politics and rule by decree. In democracies, the poor have to work, and so rely on laws. The mean: laws and prerogative, is always better. This points in the direction of constitutional government. This is redefined as a mixed constitution, where both rich and poor have a role in politics. However, a new mean is to be sought there. The rich are arrogant and ambitious, while the poor are envious and criminal, and their clashes lead to faction and the abandonment of the common good. The middle class is where reason and duty are to be located (perhaps they are the militarily excellent). Where there are no obviously pre-eminent men that can assume leadership of the community (so that it becomes a monarchy or aristocracy), a mixed constitution with a large middle class is optimal.

Now to turn to Aristotle's ideal polity. The focus is now firmly on the primacy of the philosophic over the political life. The polis has to be small enough so that citizens know each other (and can select suitable office-holders), and large enough to ensure self-sufficiency. The agricultural and manufacturing classes have no leisure and are excluded from citizenship (they are described as slaves or serfs). They are managed by citizens, whose other duties are determined by age. The young serve in the military (only to defend the community, conquest distracts away from internal development and contemplation, although slaves have to be acquired from somewhere...). Service in the army provides the experience needed for rulership. Once mature, citizens manage their households and the practical affairs of the city. When they reach old age, they retire from political life and assume the religious one. As noted in the previous post, for Aristotle the study and worship of the gods is equivalent to scientific and philosophical contemplation.

In this way, practical and intellectual virtues are apportioned according to age. Both are absolutely essential to the good life, although the latter is more distinguished. To relate this to the above list of constitutions, Aristotle's ideal looks most like an aristocracy, although the pool of citizens (who have to man the army) seems to be quite wide, so it retains elements of a constitutional government. The two models, I would argue, are broadly compatible. To return to my comments at the beginning, you need a harmonious community to philosophize in, but the philosophy, rather than the harmony, is the goal. Plato's philosophers rule for the good of all, Aristotle's rule for a time, and to ensure the conditions conducive to philosophy / the worship of the universe.


The Prince ends with the notion that Italy needs a new Moses - an armed prophet that would unite the peninsula and go on to dominate Europe. The prophet part of the equation is vital. Agathocles had power, but was despicable. Cesare Borgia had power and glory, which is why he was virtuous, despite all the despicable things he did.

How do you acquire and keep power? Three things. An independent citizen militia is the foundation of your authority (mercenaries are cowards, auxiliaries are untrustworthy). Next, you must ensure that the populace do not hate you. They provide the manpower for your armies, so their support is crucial. What they desire most is liberty, so if you do not violate their property and women, they will tolerate your rule. Low taxes, which encourage investment, is also good policy. Finally, the rich are your rivals. What they desire most is dominion, and so they have to be managed. You must be prepared to eliminate and replace entire ruling families, even when loyal, if necessary.

How do you acquire glory? Morality is nothing more than censure and praise (see the discussion in the Discourses below). It can be manipulated. Ciceronian virtues are not always prudent. Generosity means high taxes: you win over the ambitious few whilst alienating the many who serve in your army. Compassion means disorder: again favouring your friends will make you the enemy of the populace. Your army respects cruelty and a disciplinarian attitude. The love you buy with favours is fickle: people's affections shift with their interests. Fear, on the other hand, is a constant restraint.

Forget Cicero's integrity. You need to use any means necessary to hold power, assemble an army, and win wars. This is what true 'virtue' is. Virtuous actions are determined by results, and so by circumstances. Good rulers are able to adjust their character to the character of the times. However, few can dissemble so well. In which case, fortune favours the brave: constant military activity and daring is more likely to secure success. It keeps people guessing, and makes you impressive. Remember: charisma stupefies people, and success carries its own legitimacy. You can get away with anything if you are successful and charismatic, if you have power and glory, if you are an armed prophet.

But what's the likelihood of a man as virtuous (in Machiavelli's sense) as Moses turning up in Italy? We turn to the Discourses to answer that question.

As men multiply and form groups, they pick strong and courageous leaders to defend them against invasion. Life in society gradually creates morality through sympathy (recreating the positive or negative experiences of others using your imagination). This morality becomes enforceable through laws and punishments, and a notion of justice is created. Subsequently, when communities have to pick leaders, their criteria shift from strength (defence) to prudence (justice).

If power is inherited, it will eventually be assumed by incompetent or corrupt people. Such rules inspire resentment, which encourages further tyranny. The result is conspiracy and revolution. If the revolutionaries also make their authority hereditary, the cycle will continue. However, the revolutionaries could also create a democracy. However, empowering the people leads to license and anarchy, until another revolution reinstalls hereditary rule. The community is weak during the revolutions, and revolutionaries often call in outside powers to help their cause, risking foreign subjection and dissolution.

Thus the riddle of politics is to ensure a stable constitution that provides a constant succession of virtuous rulers without the license found in democratic societies. The answer is a mixed government with balanced powers.

The populace should be allowed to express their grievances through institutions. This will reduce the threat of conspiracy, disorder, and appeals to foreign powers. However, people also need to be controlled by laws, although censorship and religion are perhaps even more important. The latter replaces fear of the prince with fear of the gods, ensures that men keep their oaths, and boosts discipline and morale in the army. Ritual and ceremony is there to be manipulated. Religion should serve the interests of the community: rather than Christian humility, it should encourage ferocity and patriotism.

Although individuals may be better at constructing laws and constitutions, the people are better at preserving them. They are wiser, more dispassionate and more constant than princes. They can be persuaded by the arguments of the wise. Dictators can be elected to deal with abnormal situations. A prince cannot change his nature easily, while republics can call on a diverse range of human natures to deal with each problem. They are more adaptable to changing circumstances, and so are more successful.

In both books, the aim of political activity is power and glory. Why? Machiavelli repeatedly insists that men are wicked. Human appetites are insatiable, people are perpetually discontented, ambition drives all industry. In some respects, Machiavelli's view of history is circular: evil is a constant, empires rise and fall. But in other respects it is linear: nature purges weak regimes and replaces them with better alternatives. Machiavelli's project is to design institutions that will regulate men's wicked, ambitious natures so that society remains viable and long-lasting.

The rich are dangerous because their ambitions are turned inwards, towards dominating the poor. Princes and elected rulers alike must protect the interests of the people, channel their ambitions through the militia, and direct their desire for glory outward. For Machiavelli, liberty and harmony can only be created when all antisocial tendencies are put in the service of imperialism. Power and glory is the aim because this is what makes society possible.


Aristotle's Ethics

More notes. Aristotle's Politics will follow shortly.

Aristotle begins with the assumption that everything in the world aims at some good: it has a purpose that is part of its definition. Objects can have multiple 'ends', which are not all of equal worth. The superior end is identified by its 'self-sufficiency': it is pursued for its own sake, rather than as a means to something better.

So what is the 'end' of a human being? What is 'good' for humans? Humans value happiness above everything else: it is self-sufficient, desired for its own sake. Honour, wealth and physical pleasure are means to attaining happiness, they are not ends in themselves.

Aristotle also postulates that everything in the world has certain capacities. A plant can grow. An animal can also perceive the world. Human beings can also reason. 'Virtue' is simply using these capacities well. Thus the excellent use of reason is what human beings should strive for. This is what is virtuous concerning human beings.

If we may bring in Thrasymachus from over here, you could ask whether the correct use of reason would necessarily lead to the identification of those virtues Aristotle eventually identifies. For example, is the virtue of justice always rational?

As we have seen, the highest human capacity is reason, and the highest human desire is happiness. These must be the same. Aristotle's ethical project is to make them the same: make the practice of virtue pleasant -- a part of a happy life. This requires education.

Aristotle is difficult because he claims that reason, virtue and happiness are intimately related, and yet at the same time human beings have to be conditioned to make this relation, which casts doubt over how natural or evident this relation is. You get the feeling that Plato's transcendentalism is not entirely abandoned here.

Aristotle applies the 'self-sufficiency' rule to work out what kind of happiness is superior. Reason directed towards others human beings (political life) is imperfect because people are changeable. Reason applied to unchangeable objects (science / philosophy) offers a more sustained and intense pleasure. Men engaged in such activity are God-like: contemplative and self-sufficient.

If the ultimate end of human beings is scientific enquiry (often described in religious language by Aristotle), the reason-virtue-happiness relation may make more sense. Practical reason, a virtuous character, and the pleasant state of mind it produces, are all instrumental: they ensure the stable conditions for the exercise of the highest human capacity (reason) towards the most perfect object available to it: the unchanging laws of the universe.

So while Plato insists a happy community requires the rule of philosophers, Aristotle insists that philosophers being free to be philosophers is what constitutes a happy community: a rather more authoritarian attitude.


R.G. Collingwood

Now that I've pretty much completed my course (apart from the dissertation, which we shall not speak of), I though I should post some of my notes over here for personal reference and for anyone who is interested. I'm starting with Collingwood, since I've been yabbering incoherently about him recently, and some people have questions. Should give warning that this is my interpretation, there are probably other and better ones out there.

In his Autobiography, Collingwood describes the way his contemporaries treated the problems of philosophy as constant: philosophers were all asking the same questions and coming up with different answers. But as anyone with a brain can work out: when Plato and Hobbes talk about the 'state', they mean different things.

Which means that while the solutions philosophers come up with can still be evaluated, their presuppositions cannot. The latter are answers to previous questions, all part of the march of history. 'Metaphysical' presuppositions are 'absolute' in that they are not based on anything else but the natural world (cf. Kuhn's paradigms in the history of science). When interpreting texts, we should look at the particular questions they set out to answer. Nietzsche is (perhaps unconsciously) referenced: there are no philosophical 'facts', 'nothing capable of being memorized is history'.

So what's the point of Plato or Hobbes, then? Collinwood insists that we need a better understanding of human affairs and how to handle them. Science has created weapons of previously unimaginable power, as WWI demonstrated. Thus it is imperative to figure out how to manage human behaviour so that colossal bloodshed is avoided. Psychology is a dead end on this front. Collingwood argues that the subject doesn't really study the mind ('consciousness' 'will' and 'reason') but reduces it to 'sense' and 'appetite'. It gives all activity an (invented) unconscious motive. As a result, it removes the distinctions between truth and error, good and bad (see below for Collingwood's ethics). Rather, the answer to this particular problem is history.

Let's switch over to the Principles of History for a bit, which gives some more background on Collingwood's idiosyncratic reason / passion divide. History should be concerned with 'free activities' i.e. ones that do not proceed from man's animal nature. The historian studies deeds that express thoughts -- the way agents envision and amend their situation. They should rethink the situation again and evaluates the decision reached by the agent. Hence the famous claim that all history is the history of ideas.

Biography is NOT history, because it either details events that embody no thought, or those thoughts that have 'gossip value'. The biographer's purpose is merely to arouse feelings of sympathy or malice in the reader, and so she emphasizes the animal side of a person's existence. History should be about that rationality that is the peculiar capacity of human beings. But the picture is muddied: emotions can come into it if they are related to thoughts, and you might wonder how easy it is to separate one from the other.

Collingwood's notion of free will is even more strange. Physical conditions condition man as a physical being, but his thoughts are 'free' in that they are 'self-determined'. I think this means that agents can recognize the constraints of their environment, society (even their passions?) but can also think beyond them - conceive alternative preferable situations and act to bring them about. History is crucial in providing these alternatives, but we'll get to that in a bit. Here we should note that if history is about recreating the mental world of past agents, then studying the social (even psychological!) constraints they faced would be part of the project. Conceivably then, a division of labour could still be imposed between intellectual and social historians.

Back to the Autobiography. The value of history is in teaching skills that help you recognize the less obvious features of the present: it gives you a 'trained eye' with which to analyze the situation you are in. While we make a lot of decisions according to rules that deliver standard results in standard situations, sometimes the situation is unfamiliar or sufficiently unusual to require going beyond rules. In these cases, we need to be able to ignore present desires and interests, view the situation holistically, and behave 'righty'. As you can tell, Collingwood's ethical system isn't particularly systematic -- it's all about getting that awareness only history can give you.

So what is this awareness exactly? As mentioned above, history according to Collingwood is the history of thought. A historian's job is to think over past thoughts. He doesn't re-imagine them (as one of my teachers, sensibly, suggested). Collingwood is clear on this: the historian rethinks the same thought as the one, say, in Napoleon's head. It's a direct transfer. This makes sense if you keep in mind the reason / passion divide mentioned above. Emotions are particular, ephemeral, inconsequential; rational thinking is entirely recoverable across space and time, so long as you have the presuppositions it's grounded on. Collingwood assumes that these have not changed very much: Medieval thought-patterns are still 'living' in the present.

The past thought in the historian's mind contradicts the other thoughts he has formed by engaging with the present. Hence the proof that human beings are conceptually 'free' from their environment: we can think beyond our temporal context. The historian rethinks lots of different thoughts that originally belonged to different contexts. This amounts to being lots of different people. I think there is an implicit suggestion that such an expanded awareness would dampen the desires and selfish interests that derail 'right conduct'. More explicitly, Collingwood argues that having this augmented consciousness will make you comprehend 'human affairs' better. Being more people will make you understand people more, and hopefully help you work out how to stop them killing each other with the enthusiasm they demonstrated in the latter 1910s.



Well done, Mr. Branagh. Most of the (stellar) cast signed on without reading the script just because you were behind this one. And it seems to me like you worked with them in the design stage of each character. Skarsgård, Dennings and Elba had nothing roles, and yet you managed to create pay-offs for all of them. Well done, sir!

Perhaps I've been reading too much Nietzsche recently, but how about Thor as a film about the conflict between will to power and resentment? Let's run with that for five seconds. Thor is the beefy, over-confident idiot at one with his physical nature, Loki the starved, jealous schemer who sideswipes glory. I mean, the horns of his helmet are actually turned back onto himself -- the perfect symbol for the ascetic self-loathing Nietzsche so maliciously detailed. And ascetics are more interesting. Loki steals this film: a younger son with an inferiority complex who compulsively plots petty conspiracies against his brother, who ends up trying to annihilate whole worlds in order to purge his sense of being an unworthy outsider, who faces the ultimate choice between fulfillment and oblivion, because second-best is intolerable. Just about the most fully-realized and down-right Shakespearian villain in a superhero film I've seen. Up there with Ledger's Joker, for serious.

But it's not really Nietzsche, of course, because Thor is sent down to earth, crucified and resurrected in order to learn the value of humility. Love, too, although Portland's Magdalene is an astrophysicist with her own life project, and her gushing is entirely understandable when confronted with Hemsworth's frankly divine torso. It's very much the girl getting the hunk in this film. And hunkishness civilized. Thor is a barbarian in New Mexico, and the film plays on his neanderthal qualities to superb comic effect. Slowly his experience of these weak mortals teaches him to live for others, and with uncertainties. Until his friends come to get him, he has accepted exile and the fact that the Allfather is dead.

I think the film had a slight problem with pacing at the beginning, some of the editing during the dialogue scenes was clunky (we get it, Loki's silence is significant!), and some of the CGI was a bit flat. But these flaws are forgivable when we have acting, characters and themes that are so satisfyingly intelligent and beautifully accomplished. A real must, this one. Well done, Mr. Branagh!

Right. Bring on Captain America and the X-Men!


'Weak and timid minds, afraid of the present because they are unequal to the emotional strains it imposes on them, find a welcome calm awaiting them when they step outside it into the emotional past, where all passion is spent, all strife ended, and action that once was alive and dangerous is stilled in the calm of death. To such minds there is great attraction in the study of history, because it seems to offer them an escape from the urgencies and perplexities of actual life into a realm of peace.' - R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of History

The past inside the present

You know what? The fatuous musings over here might not be ENTIRELY fatuous. I was just re-reading R.G. Collingwood's brill Autobiography (the spark that lit the Cambridge School fire) and seriously, if the hauntologists need a more coherent theory than just "something with ghosts in", then they can do worse than this:

'...the modern historian can study the Middle Ages ... only because they are not dead. By that I mean not that their writings and so forth are still in existence as material objects, but that their ways of thinking are still in existence as ways in which people think.'

...the past which an historian studies is not a dead past, but a past which in some sense is still living in the present.'

Although the metaphor Collingwood goes for is not ghosts but light. Paraphrased:

'...the present is not opaque, it is transparent, so that the past shines through it and their colours combine into one.'

Fitting, since history is what will save humanity from the abuses of technological power witnessed in the 1910s. Less nostalgia or fear of the repressed, more augmentation of consciousness -- becoming 'a great many kinds of man' (pre-feminism, this) able to deal with every situation effectively to advance the interests of all.

So not really hauntology then... Call it what it is: an idealism which Hegel might recognise...

I like it. For me it sounds like this and this and this and this...