‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The War of All Against All

This is a pendant to my previous post about war, literature and post-Tolkienian Fantasy. I'm still trying to get my thoughts into some sort of order on this topic and, judging by the friction my earlier post generated amongst its (few) readers it's likely I'm barking up the wrong tree. But it has got me thinking about how one particular idea, widely held, has fared in recent years. That idea is, basically: ‘the underlying logic of the universe is war’, and I'm wondering if the way that idea has fared recently is: it has gained general currency. You might, yourself, think it gets at something important about the world, from a (let's say) Darwinian or a Sun Tzuian or perhaps a ‘cosmic struggle between good and evil’ point of view; but you would also, I'd hope, accept that there are other ways of thinking about the underlying logic of things. For instance you might think nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw is only a partial understanding of Darwin, and that collaboration and cooperation are actually more important, and therefore are closer to the ‘truth’ of things; indeed, you might deny that there is any underlying truth of things at all.

Bellum omnium contra omnes, Hobbes's famous phrase to describe the natural state of humankind, first appeared in the Preface of De Cive (1642):

I suppose I’m taking it as axiomatic—perhaps baselessly—that such a belief underpins what we might call ‘right wing’ political positions: it’s a jungle out there, competition is the nature of the universe, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, greed is good, business is war, there’s no evading the fight so we must be ‘strong’, which is to say: belligerent, ruthless, cruel. We must, as my old Nan liked to say, be like pharaoh, and harden our hearts. It may be that this nexus of beliefs, consciously rationalised or not, has become more deeply embedded in right-wing thought than it used to be; I’m not sure. I'm young enough to remember ‘compassionate Conservatism’ but I suppose that's more or less extinct now, at least in Britain and the US. Calling Trumpism ‘Hobbesian Conservatism’ might be thought to dignify the reflex narcissicism of an authoritarian, but it seems to me to get at something of the political appeal of the movement. The situation on the British right is, maybe, a little more complex.

But the question that interests me is whether there has been a similar shift in ‘left wing’ thought. Maybe the assumptions on the left have, over the last few decades, become more ‘you’re either with us or against us and if you’re against us then fuck you’ than they used to be—as opposed to, for the sake of argument, ‘you’re either with us or against us and if you’re against us then let’s think about the kinds of common ground on which we could meet, the best ways to reach out to you, to persuade you of our position and listen to you explain yours’. One case study might be the posthumous reputation of Andrea Dworkin. I first read Dworkin when I was a student, and I don’t think it’s just my scare-quotes liberal soft-left beliefs speaking when I say: back in the 1980s hers was an extreme position within feminist thought more broadly conceived. Now it seems to me her views are more-or-less accepted on the left. When I talk about ‘her views’ I’m referring to the argument she makes that, to the extent that it is situated within the ubiquitous context of patriarchal dominance, all heterosexual sex is rape, that men are all rapists and the only question is the degree of coercion and the extremity of harm. That used to be a position with which few people, even feminists, agreed. Nowadays the belief that straight sex inevitably takes place within and is framed by the larger context of ‘rape culture’ is much more widely accepted. I think it’s true to say that these views have moved from ‘extreme’ feminism to a much more mainstream feminist position (I could be wrong); but I'm surely on safer ground when I suggest that Dworkin’s views were underpinned by a belief that the gender universe is, in effect, a war. Homo feminae lupus.

I am, I suppose, suggesting more than that ‘we’ are more politically polarised than we used to be, though that’s surely true. I’m suggesting that there’s been a broad-front, perhaps unnoted spread of the underlying belief that the nature of reality is war. There used to be such a thing as the ‘politics of consensus’ but that was buried, without military honours, in the 1980s. Looking back all that 1960s/1970s utopian dreaming looks ... what? Quaint I suppose. Naïve. Hippy. Now everything is “us” versus “them”—who, nowadays, is singing in fey tones “us and them? After all we’re only ordinary men”? Now we’re all too wary to be taken in by such ingenuousness (an anthem for 2019: *sings* this is the dawning of the age of all-wariness, the age of all-wariness). “I don’t mind if you think me ruthless; just please don’t think me naïve, I couldn’t stand that.’ The ceremony of innocence, as somebody once put it, is drowned. Am I merely caricaturing where we are nowadays? Or is the belief that life is a war of all against all much more widely assumed, on the left as well as the right, than used to be the case?


  1. But the hippies were at war - those utopian dreams were predicated on the defeat of the Man. Calling for peace and love in the USA, at a time when the government was sending young men to fight a war, was a deeply political and oppositional stance. Even in the UK it was a counter-culture - and it had roots in the (failure of the) first anti-nuclear movement, which was also an explicitly anti-government mobilisation (for peace).

    As far as antagonism goes, I don't see a huge difference between the early-60s peace movement, the hippie wave, the Women's Liberation Movement, the 1970s shop stewards' movement and punk - they were all, in their very different ways, movements of 'us' against 'them' (and with a fair amount of overlap in the definition of 'them').

    What they weren't was movements of 'every person for him- or herself'. There are movements of that kind - usually centring on a figurehead who promises to show their followers how to out-compete the other poor saps, and/or to remove the obstacles that have been holding them back - but usually they're either not political (self-help gurus from Tony Robbins to Jordan Peterson) or political in an anti-political way (Berlusconi, Tommy Robinson).

    So I'd pose the question differently. I think what has waned, (and perhaps disappeared completely) is the idea that we're all, at some level, in it together: political conflict - or rather, political debate - can take place with complete respect for one's opponent, to the point where it doesn't matter enormously if their side wins a particular contest and ours loses. There is a much greater consciousness of 'us' and 'them' than there was in the 'official' political culture of the 1960s and 70s, or of the 00s for that matter. But the normalisation of political antagonism over consensus isn't all that new; it has roots in important movements of the 60s and 70s (quite direct and visible roots in the case of the Labour left, which is one of the most partisan elements of contemporary political culture). Moreover, I stress the word 'official' - if the 60s and 70s were a time of political consensus and also a time of antagonistic social movements, something was clearly going on to keep the latter out of the former. Political consensus isn't the natural state, in other words - it's the product of the exclusion of conflict. (But that conflict is generally 'us against them' as distinct from 'each against all' - a type of conflict which has its own, particular type of political formation.)

    I'm afraid none of this is much use for your argument!

    1. PS Had to google Tony Robbins; I initially wrote that comment under the impression that there was a self-help guru called Anthony Daniels. Which would be interesting in its own way.

    2. Agreed, Phil: although I suppose I'd suggest that the 'particular type of political formation' you're describing in your last line there is: capitalism. Arguably this atomisation is inherently belligerent. The war of profit against individual human beings.

  2. I think one could argue that the traditional Marxist/Leninist position, with its idea that the true, underlying basis of society is class struggle or class war, mediated by a series of violent revolutions, is itself an embodiment of the idea that "the underlying logic of the universe is war" and the "if you're not with us you're against us" mentality (sometimes directed against other Communists as well as against feckless liberals).

    I'm also inclined to wonder if this isn't partly derived (on both the left and the right), from Judeo-Christian millenarian/apocalyptic traditions (going back in some senses to Zoroastrianism): the idea that the end of history will involve a titanic struggle between Good and Evil. Norman Cohn, at the end of The Pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary Millennarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, makes a specific (if brief) argument that both Nazism and Communism inherited medieval ideas of history being oriented around an uncompromising struggle against evil.

    1. I agree that the belief that the underlying logic of reality is, in some sense, "war" is a very ancient one. But I'd also suggest that the contrasting view, that that underlying logic is justice, or co-operation, or love, is also an ancient one.

  3. “One case study might be the posthumous reputation of Andrea Dworkin … I’m referring to the argument she makes that all heterosexual sex is rape”


    “Andrea Dworkin believes that all intercourse is rape.

    “FALSE. She has never said this. She sets the record straight in a 1995 interview with British novelist Michael Moorcock. And in a new preface to the tenth-anniversary edition of Intercourse (1997), Andrea explains why she believes this book continues to be misread:

    “[I]f one's sexual experience has always and without exception been based on dominance--not only overt acts but also metaphysical and ontological assumptions--how can one read this book? The end of male dominance would mean--in the understanding of such a man--the end of sex. If one has eroticized a differential in power that allows for force as a natural and inevitable part of intercourse, how could one understand that this book does not say that all men are rapists or that all intercourse is rape? Equality in the realm of sex is an antisexual idea if sex requires domination in order to register as sensation. As sad as I am to say it, the limits of the old Adam--and the material power he still has, especially in publishing and media--have set limits on the public discourse (by both men and women) about this book [pages ix-x].”

    1. Thank you sarahcl; I have amended my original post.

    2. This is also discussed in a Snopes article, primarily about the false attribution of that quote to Dworkin's fellow anti-porn activist Catharine MacKinnon (which is my memory from the 1980s):


    3. Thank you, but I still don't think you are characterising her argument accurately, even with the change. Dworkin is saying that if someone believes that ‘sex’, inevitably, involves coercion, then *that person* believes that all sex is rape, and all rape is sex, and therefore sees any attempt to end rape as an attempt to end sex.

    4. sarahcl: here, I think, we disagree (I accept of course I could be wrong). I have read Intercourse, and whilst Dworkin nowhere argues that heterosexual sex is necessarily rape, she does say, at length, that dehumanising pornography and patriarchal power-over structures of oppression have so interpenetrated contemporary life that, to quote her own words, 'violation is a synonym for intercourse': sex today is overwhelmed by 'the discourse of male truth: literature, science, philosophy, pornography' which is invasive, domineering etc. My point in the post is that she was talking about (without using this phrase) what we now call 'rape culture', by way of arguing that thought her position was a marginal one in the 1980s even in feminist circles, 'rape culture' is widely accepted by feminists today as a fact of conteporary life. That said, you are quite right that she insisted in interviews that the bald line 'all heterosexual sex is rape', which I (wrongly) included in the original draft of this post, was a misreading of her book.

    5. "by way of arguing that thought her position" >> "that though"

  4. 2 thoughts to bounce off what you're saying here.

    First, I'm not sure that the equivalence between Dworkin's thought, as you present it here, and 'rape culture', is justified. At least, whenever I've seen rape culture discussed, the term seems mostly applied to a normalisation of having sex without consent. I don't get the sense from the discourse that rape culture means true, sex-as-equals sex cannot happen under patriarchy. At least as far as general usage goes, 'rape culture' appears to be a more sophisticated way of stating 'no means no'.

    And then on the fact that we have entered an age of conflict. I have two thoughts regarding this. First, there is an episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast I listened to recently where Klein interviews Frances Lee, an academic with a thesis that, somewhat bowdlerised, states that in the US, the breakdown of party hegemony and the production of tighter electoral races has changed the incentives parties operate under, making it more electorally beneficial (if not legislatively beneficial) for them to obstruct and fight with one another, rather than seek cooperation. This is good as far as it goes for the USA but doesn't explain why Britain's turning towards conflict too - except, what if the breakdown of the neoliberal hegemony has a similar effect to party hegemony (which seems sensible, given that both hegemonies are built upon widespread popular consent to a set of ideas). Basically, what I'm trying to get at is, we are in a state of being where there is not a hegemonic conception of 'how the world works'. And that state of being, it seems to me, is one where cross-ideological cooperation is almost impossible because there is no common bridge. Everyday you're talking to people who live in another world, and, what's worse, people who see that, if they cooperate with you, they may risk having a faulty reality imposed on them. Hence, war.