Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Sociology after the Holocaust

Zygmunt Bauman's paper 'Sociology after the Holocaust' isn't theology perzackly, but it's a powerful articulation of some of the enormous questions that the incomprehensible horrors of the Holocaust raise for pretty much every sort of knowledge. It was written in 1988, and Bauman's basic claim is that sociology relies on an account of human history which says that we all started out as rude, violent, barbarians, but are slowly being made better and nicer by the process of civilisation, so bad things that happen (like the Holocaust) are an aberration, a relapse to an earlier, nastier stage of the development of human culture. But Bauman thinks that the Holocaust shows up how inadequate this model is: the Holocaust wasn't an aberration but was, in all too many ways, a logical outcome of modern civilisation and the bureaucratic, rational state.

The Holocaust would have been impossible without the advancements of modern society. The systematic slaughtering of Jews and other outcasts was modelled on the factory system, producing death instead of goods. Without modern industrialisation and technological know-how it would have been impossible to kill so many people so efficiently. The sociologist Max Weber talked about modernity in terms of 'modern bureaucracy, rational spirit, principle of efficiency, scientific mentality, relegation of values to the realm of subjectivity': all of these characteristics were present in the Holocaust. Bauman argues that the Holocaust is a significant and reliable test of the hidden possibilities of modern society. Not only is it a powerful reminder of how ethically blind the bureaucratic pursuit of efficiency is, but the Final Solution itself was an outcome of the bureaucratic culture.

No one set out to make the Holocaust happen: it arose from a series of rational decisions about the most effective way to meet the basic objective of getting rid of the Jews. Originally, the plan was just to force German Jews to leave Germany, but as Germany conquered more and more of Europe, there were more and more Jews to get rid of, and this became impractical. Next, the plan was to designate 'Jewish principality', a giant ghetto in Poland, but the bureaucracy in charge of this area didn't want to take responsibility … Eventually, physical extermination was chosen as the most effective means to the original end. Plenty of genocides have taken place without the aid of bureaucracy, but only in a bureaucratic culture could the Holocaust come to seem the most 'reasonable' solution.

The Holocaust wasn't carried out by crazy or unusually violent people. The SS deliberately tried to ensure that those responsible for the actual killings were not especially eager, emotional or ideologically zealous. They wanted the task to be as business-like and impersonal as possible (this was the motivation for abandoning shooting in favour of the more clinical gas chambers as the primary means of killing).

Herbert C. Kelman has identified three conditions which encourage the erosion of moral inhibitions against violent atrocities: the authorisation of violence, the routinisation of actions, and the dehumanisation of victims. Bauman points out that the first two are classic characteristics of modern institutions. Max Weber, writing before the Holocaust, says that 'The honour of a civil servant is vested in his ability to execute conscientiously the order of superior authorities, exactly as if the order agreed with his own conviction. This holds even if the order seems wrong to him.' People stop worrying about what the 'right' thing to do is because the right thing is always to do what you're told: discipline is substituted for moral responsibility. In addition, the Final Solution was so effectively implemented because it was broken up into so many routine tasks: this person drove the trains; this person operated the signals; this person herded the Jews into the chambers; this person pressed the button to release the gas. Not only thousands of Germans but most of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust co-operated with the bureaucratic processes of the SS.

But the third condition, dehumanisation, is the most sinister of all. Most of those who enabled the Holocaust never even realised that their actions had moral implications: all they did was gather statistics, coordinate logistics, and liaise with community leaders and generals. It didn't seem like there was much of a causal connection between what they did and the reality of mass murder. John Lachs argues that the mediation of action is one of the most salient features of modern society: the person doing the act thinks that the responsibility lies with the person who told them to do it; the person who told them to do it has no tangible idea of what it is that they've ordered. The increase in distance between the act and its consequences makes it very difficult for us to give it moral significance, just as for us buying a pair of trainers seems to have very little relation to the reality of sweatshops on the other side of the world.

What the Holocaust tells us, says Bauman, is that it isn't enough to explain violence as a remnant of our distant past when we were uncivilised and barbaric. The Holocaust was not abnormal as we would like to think; it is not so far away from us as we would hope; it is all to possible that such a thing might happen again. The civilising process doesn't simply make us better, kinder people: it also involves the separation of violence from questions of morality, and screens off ethics from questions about the most rational solution. The Holocaust was a legitimate outcome of the civilising tendency; Holocaust-like events are a constant potential of the sort of society we live in. Sociology (and theology, and every other subject) needs to deal with this issue, needs to recognise that the Holocaust makes its normal criteria for good practice problematic. It was sociologists and anthropologists who conducted research into the genetic differences between Aryans and Jews, and they weren't, by the standards sociology sets itself, bad sociologists. They were part of the same system that we were part of, and they had all too many of the same values as us.

Phot credit: professor megan

Friday, 15 October 2010

Meet René Descartes

Durham University have, in their wisdom, deemed me fit to teach some undergraduate seminars this year, which I'm looking forward to partly as an opportunity to feel cleverer than other theologians (a rare occurrence when you're a PhD student) and also as a chance to refresh my memory of or just, y'know, finally get around to reading some of the big names in the world of philosophy and theology.

One of the people I'll be teaching is René Descartes, one of the most important philosophers in the world, ever. Enrique Chavez-Arvizo, whose biography of Descartes is in the Wordsworth Classics Edition of Descartes' Key Philosophical Writing (the source of most of the information in this post) says that Descartes' acheivements 'rank second only to Plato's' and 'are the single most important source of our modern intellectual character'. Unlike poor Kant, Enrique thinks that Descartes' works 'display a lucid and rich literary style equalled by few', and over the course of his 53 years of life, he wrote important texts on geometry, algebra, physics, mechanics, cosmology, meteorology, optics, physiology, anatomy and medicine 'to name the principal ones' (!).

Descartes was born in 1596, in a town which was called La Haye at the time, but has since been renamed Descartes ('I think, therefore I've found myself a nice little cottage round the corner from the post office'?). His family were vaguely aristocratic, and rich enough for him to spend most of his life living off his inheritance. His mum died when he was three, so his grandmother raised him till he was ten, when he was packed off to study at a Jesuit-run school. He was a sickly kid, so he was given the privilege of being allowed a lie-in every morning, and he used these mornings in bed to, er, 'meditate'. He kept up the habit for most of the rest of his life.

After leaving school, he went and got a law degree in Poitiers, and wrote a Treatise on Fencing before setting off to travel round Europe because he wanted to study at the school of life instead of just reading books. Whilst in the Netherlands, he joined the army, and though he never actually got to see any action, he did have a mystical experience in a sauna on the Danube: three dreams which he interpreted as a message telling him to come up with a theory of everything. Afterwards, he went back to France and sold his family estate so he could set up as a full time philosopher, then off for some more travelling round Italy, before he settled in Paris for a couple of years. While there, he gave a speech which so impressed one of the cardinals listening to him talk that afterwards they cornered him and made him promise to dedicate his whole life to philosophy 'for the benefit of humanity'.

Next, Descartes moved to Holland, where he moved around a lot, trying to get away from people and be alone, though he kept getting embroiled in philosophical controversies with other people. In the early 1630s, he moved to a slaughterhouse district so he could learn about physiology. In 1629, a friend asked him to write something about the scientific phenomenon of parhelia (rings around the sun), so he wrote a scientific treatise, only to chicken out of publishing it when he found out how much trouble Galileo had recently gotten himself into for suggesting that the earth wasn't the centre of the universe. Around the same time, he knocked up a girl called Hélène, a servant in a house he'd stayed in, and she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Francine, who died aged five.

After writing various other treatises, Descartes published his most famous work, the Meditations on First Philosophy, which was basically an attempt to work out whether there is anything we can be sure that we really know. It proved to be a bit controversial. A theologian called Gisbertus Voetius (Gisbertus! What a name.) published an anonymous treatise attacking Descartes (I'd be keen on anonymity if I was called Gisbertus), and Descartes cheekily responded with an open letter entitled 'Letter of René Descartes to that Most Distinguished Man, Mr Gisbertus Voetius'.

Descartes' next bit work was The Principles of Philosophy, which was meant to be used as a university textbook. He dedicated it to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who'd been his penpal ever since he wrote the Meditations. At her request, he wrote his last major work, The Passions of the Soul, which was all about the passions (or emotions if you want to be all 21st century about it). But he kept getting himself into arguments with other philosophers and theologians, and eventually, getting a bit fed up with it all, he accepted an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden to join her court. Christina, evidently either a swot or an insomniac, made Descartes give her regular philosophy lessons at 5am. He eventually died of pneumonia when he was only 53, which just goes to show that early mornings are bad for you.

So, that's Descartes, philosopher extraordinaire. His example has much to teach us: primarily that the route to philosophical genius lies through plentiful lies ins, multiple gap years, and being able to live off your parents' money. So there's hope for as all: all we have to do is to be upper to upper-middle class. Oh. Crap.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

How to make friends and influence people

Impressively, two people correctly guessed that the philosopher so harshly denounced by his translator was none other than Immanuel Kant, German thinker extraordinaire and possessor of a freakishly large head, if this painting is to be believed (maybe it was just an awkward angle). The translator was one J.M.D. Mieklejohn, not a man to mince his words. He was prepared to concede that there were some good reasons for Kant's failure to express himself clearly; after all:

He took twelve years to excogitate his work and only five months to write it. He was a German professor, a student of solitary habits, and had never, except on one occasion, been out of Konigsberg. He had, besides, to propound a new system of philosophy, and to enounce ideas that were entirely to revolutionise European thought.
And y'know, his writing's not all bad:

His expression is often as precise and forcible as his thought; and, in some of his notes especially, he sums up in two or three apt and powerful words, thoughts which, at other times, he employs pages to develop. His terminology, which has been so violently denounced, is really of great use in clearly determining his system, and in rendering its peculiarities more easy of comprehension.
Very charitable of Mr. Mieklejohn. He's less kind about Kant's previous translators:

A previous translation of the Kritik exists, which, had it been satisfactory, would have dispensed with the present. But the translator had, evidently, no very extensive acquaintance with the German language, and still less with his subject. A translator ought to be an interpreting intellect between the author and the reader; but, in the present case, the only interpreting medium has been the dictionary.
Ouch. It's not just the translators Mieklejohn lays into: he also points out that all the other English books about Kant

were written by men who either took no pains to understand Kant or were incapable of understanding him.
Mieklejohn also says that the reason he undertook his own translation was because he was asked to proof read another translation by 'a scholar of some repute', but

after having laboured through about eighty pages, I found, from the numerous errors and inaccuracies pervading it, that hardly one-fifth of the original MS remained. I, therefore, laid it entirely aside, and commenced de novo.
It must be nice to be so thoroughly superior to almost everyone else, though you wonder whether, at the end of it, Mieklejohn had any friends left. Still, definitely my favourite translator's introduction ever. I hope one day to attain such dizzying heights of cattiness, contempt and confidence in my own abilities. It's good to have goals, right?

Monday, 4 October 2010

Oh dear

Things you don't want to read in translator's preface:
He had never studied the art of expression. He wearies by frequent repetition, and employs a great number of words to express, in the clumsiest way, what could have been enounced more clearly and distinctly in a few.
Can you guess who he's talking about?