arma virumque

So I was toying with what I suppose has turned into a kind of riddle, along the following lines:

i: you embrace it — and build yr worldview round the fact of the embrace — bcz you believe it will deliver us from bother
ii: But then the bother arrives anyway, and is itself primarily fashioned around this fact of yr embrace
iii: And if you ever think to reach for it, to dispel this bother, you well know you simply affirm the logic of your foes and redouble their will to bother you…
iv: … which is the very model of an enraging positive-feedback pickle.

When I began, “it” was something like the “right to carry” or “gun culture”, and I was niggling idly away at the sheer baffling venom of the discussion in the US [edit: baffling as seen from anywhere else]. Except gradually it struck me that plenty of other “its” somewhat fit this bill: for example, “critical theory” engenders similarly over-reactive defensiveness when fingered as a symptom, as indeed does “rationalism”. But I don’t think the wars that bubble up out of such self-arming and the reactions against it are — at least straightforwardly — proxies for class politics as we ordinarily understand it (or indeed for religious or “philosophical” conflicts as we’d loosely sketch them).

4 thoughts on “arma virumque”

  1. This chimes with something I have been think about using ideas (philosophies/political theories/critical theories) as signifier for “the other”. Once defined as such, they are impossible to talk to either because they are the enemy or lack the ability to comprehend your wonderful insight. When ideas have enough traction to become the basis of a group philosophy the idea also can easily get ossified, because defending the core idea against the enemy disbelievers is more valuable than adapting the philosophy of a group*. Winning the wrong argument also because more important that agreeing about the right one.

    *I think this has accelerated hugely in the information culture, but we have about 100 years of experimental data from Marxism and its splits.

  2. Embittered internecine war among the flyspeck sectarian groupuscules on the left is — as you say — a datapoint, with its own history and causes, but politics is of course intrinsically battle-ready and indeed battle-hungry, so the fact of the fury there is more of a pain than it’s a surprise.

    (Or not a pain at all if you’re not on the left.)

    Here’s Krugman on the manifestation of rage in the public discussion of economics: obviously economics overlaps significantly with politics, so again, not entirely a surprise, but (as PK notes): “… the writings that elicit such responses tend *not* to involve political commentary. Instead, they’re most often straight economic analysis, based in many cases on perfectly ordinary applications of IS-LM type reasoning.”

    So I guess what I’m prodding away at is technical language considered both as empowering intellectual or cultural armoury — by those adept in it — and as symbolic of a threatening abuse of power by those not. Or the kneejerk pre-rational loathing in rock-culture of Whitney-style musicianship… ?

    (I’m aware I’m being deliberately agnostic here about the actual rights and wrongs of the various sides in the various examples we could highlight, which is arguably a bit cheeky and bad-faith and above-the-fray fake-symmetry of me… )

  3. My original candidate for “it,” before reading further in the post (or Googling “Arma Virumque), was “Unplugging the phone.” I suppose “Right to carry” or “Critical theory” might fit the bill, as might “License to kill.” Not sure those are embraced on the basis of their likelihood to reduce bother, though, except maybe the killing license.

    But then, I wouldn’t build my worldview on the basis of unplugging the phone.

    The stuff about gun-control wars, critical-theory wars, unplugging-the-phone wars, etc. not being proxies for class politics caught me unawares, since I didn’t see where you were foreshadowing it or leading up to it, or that you’d even raised the question of whether class politics were engaged.

    So, what is the question? That (maybe this is vaguely analogous to yr Krugman reference), e.g., some of us (i) spend time analyzing Ashlee Simpson songs is (ii) enraging to other people because of what our behavior symbolizes socially to them? Yet the rage is inarticulate (despite often being verbose) precisely because they have no real clue what we’re saying or why we’re saying it, or what their own problem with our studying Ashlee is anyway, why it feels threatening to them?

    (1) Okay, but were we trying to understand Ashlee in the first place in order to reduce bother?

    (2) Class may well be the best lens through which to view this, though obv. to engage in such a viewing requires us to rethink what we mean by “class”: the upper class, the middle class, and the working class don’t seem to be at issue. But some people feel that something, some hard-won stance, some way of living for a set or sets of people (including maybe some Ashlee fans who are as frightened of Ashlee being intellectualized as Ashlee haters are afraid of her being a legitimate object of study), is imagined to be at risk when Ashlee Simpson is taken seriously, even if people’s sense of being under threat is mostly made* in ignorance of Ashlee Simpson or of anything we actually say about Ashlee.

    But where does this fit into your original dynamic? If, in response to the rage, I (iii) actually try to communicate my ideas about Ashlee, this may well simply affirm the logic of people who are aghast that I take Ashlee seriously, but so what? At least I’d given them the chance to, you know, grow up, to change, to abandon their assumptions. What else should I do, if I don’t want to dismiss them altogether?

    (But I still don’t see that this merry-go-round starts with an attempt to “deliver [ourselves] from bother.”)

    *By the haters, at least, and the bemused onlookers.

  4. But I don’t think the wars that bubble up out of such self-arming and the reactions against it are — at least straightforwardly — proxies for class politics as we ordinarily understand it (or indeed for religious or “philosophical” conflicts as we’d loosely sketch them).

    I’d say they’re not proxies for anything. But nonetheless, a participant in these conflicts is not simply battling other individuals who happen to do something he or she dislikes. Our battler is seeing both the behavior and the people as representative, as a type of behavior and a type of person.

    Of course, our battler is also likely to be misreading. We should imagine the form this misreading might take:

    First, think of how we classify people socially. We can classify by some characteristics (“People who drive funny cars,” or something). Or, being more sophisticated i.e. more nominalist, we can classify by overlapping characteristics (many but not all of the people who drive funny cars also wear funny hats, while many but not all people with funny hats drive funny cars, and many but not all of the people with funny hats and/or funny cars drink soy milk, and on like this over, say, twelve characteristics, with any individual with at least eight of the characteristics being in the category, so people in the category sharing some but not all of the characteristics, and no particular characteristic is defining).

    But I would define our classes here not by characteristics but by who runs with whom. When you see a cluster of people they’re a class, even though there’s no clear boundary saying who’s in the class or not, and no characteristics that put you in the class for sure, other than that you’re in the class. And though people in the class are likely to share many characteristics with other members of the class — this characteristic shared with Person A, that characteristic shared with Person B — the characteristics aren’t what determine who’s in the cluster. The cluster itself is a brute fact beyond any reasons for it.

    But to observers, including even some members of the group, some characteristics are seen as group markers; so outsiders who have the characteristic are mistakenly seen as members of the group, and group “members” (membership hardly being official, just who tends to hang with whom) who don’t have the “defining” characteristic nonetheless are assumed to have it.

    So — loosely — we do have group or class conflicts over issues such as gun control or global warming, even when people aren’t taking the positions they’re perceived as taking and a class doesn’t unanimously hold a position and people are basically guessing or inventing their adversaries’ attitudes, seeing one issue as representing a whole constellation of what “those people” are like, and battling a whole range of attitudes even when half of what they’re battling are positions that no one’s actually taken. So it’s not a proxy class battle, it’s an actual class battle, even if the classes are vague and the battle forms around issues that are obtusely symbolic. And even if it doesn’t further any actual class interest.

    I can still sorta imagine a (i) —> (iv) as you’ve outlined it, except with the various “its” in question frequently being substituted out for other “its,” midbattle, and no more than a few people taking the time to learn someone else’s actual view or ethic or stance, or taking much time to develop their own.

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