‘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 6 March 2014

'Taking' Offence

The crucial question, I suppose, is: does taking offence at something tend to empower or disempower us? Is it the latter, because it reveals us as mimsy and thin-skinned, too easily upset, childish and so on? Or the former, because one consequence of the (necessary, even heroic) efforts over the last century or so to drive out sexist, racist and homophobic discourse has resulted in a new social logic whereby people will go to significant efforts to respond, defuse, apologise for and try to future-avert 'any offence caused'. If the former, then it stands to reason that people will increasingly not only take offence but do it publicly.

We might want to say: but offence is a feeling! I can't help feeling. Which is fair enough, and I suppose true to a point. Except that these very efforts to delegitimize sexism, racism and homophobia have been in large part the effort to police people's feelings. A homophobe feels disgust at the thought of what gay people get up to, feels disgusted to have to share his workspace with a gay man and so on. (I stress feeling here since it seems to me axiomatic that such prejudice is not based on rationality or intellect: it is, on the contrary, irrational and stupid). If a person says 'my formerly whites only swimming pool is now open to people of all races and this makes me feel disgusted and upset' we are, I'd suggest, unlikely to go 'there there!' and try to soothe the individual's wounded sensibilities. We're more likely to say: oh get over yourself, you bigot. Your feelings are ridiculous. Indeed, the fact that you feel this way is likely to make me, and others, feel bad. I take personal offence at such offensive views! And so on.

The difficulty is a fundamental one. We can only challenge these (I should stress: insane, ridiculous) 'feelings' by transferring them into the realm of the intellect, by de-emoting them. Think how illogical it is to think that you will be, in some sense, contaminated by sharing swimming pool water with people whose skins are black and brown! The problem here, of course, is that because the bigot is not reacting on the level of logic he is unlikely to be persuaded to reconsider his bigotry by an appeal to logic.

These thoughts are prompted, in part, by the latest kerfuffle in my beloved genre. A great deal of effort has been expended by many people to try and make SF Conventions 'safe spaces'. Since such conventions used, in many cases, to be places in which men, variously creepy, weird and aggressive, scammed on, harassed, assaulted and raped women, this is a powerful and important move. A safe space ought, at the very least, to be a space in which a female fan could come without having to endure such behaviour from male fans. Ideally it ought to be a space in which a female fan need not even worry that such behaviour would ever happen; but (male) humanity being what it is, this actually shakes down into: a space in which complaints about harassment are taken seriously, acted on promptly and so on. I can't imagine anybody could object to, and surely most people would loudly applaud, such moves. The problem comes when 'harassment' is taken to include not only bodily advances and assaults but also anything that impinges feelings -- anything done, said, or implied that makes a women feel uncomfortable or unhappy. The kerfuffle to which I advert hinged not on the actual upset caused to any woman's feelings at the con (since the con has not happened yet, this would not have been possible). It was a purely subjunctive predicate, based on the idea that even the thought that there was a possibility that words might be spoken that might cause a woman to feel bad feelings was grounds enough to object to a person being invited to the con. This special subset of feelings (on the analogy of the stock market, we might call them 'Feelings Futures') throws my initial question into sharper relief. On the one hand: who could be so crass as to deny someone's feelings, or tell someone to shut the fuck up because of (eg) weeping as a result of such feelings? On the other hand: YOU WHAT?

I suspect the reason this latter case seems so tenuous to many is precisely that thinking about what we might or might not feel at some far-off future date strikes many of us as the sort of thing the intellect does, rather than something that proceeds instinctively from the emotions. If we wanted to be pedantic about it, we could say: the mind first rationally extrapolates or imagines a future state of affairs -- as it might be, 'Jonathan Ross saying something that hurts my feelings' -- and then that imagine future state has an affective reaction. Maybe the affective reaction is genuine; maybe the tears are real. But they are not tears wept as a result of anything that has happened, since their cause is still in the notional future.


  1. these very efforts to delegitimize sexism, racism and homophobia have been in large part the effort to police people's feelings

    I don't think that's true at all. The purpose of these efforts has been to police the expression of those feelings. Personally, I don't really care if someone is, in their heart of hearts, sexist, racist, homophobic or whatnot. What I care about is whether they express these prejudices publicly and cause people pain and discomfort. It's the feelings (and safety) of victims and potential victims that are important, not the feelings of those who cause pain.

    it seems to me axiomatic that such prejudice is not based on rationality or intellect: it is, on the contrary, irrational and stupid

    I also really disagree with this. At the heart of every prejudice is a very cold, easily comprehended logic. The bigot enforces prejudice because in so doing he enforces his own supremacy and privilege. If a person's self-image is bound up in their belief that their whiteness makes them better than people who are not white (and if the belief in that supremacy allows them to ignore ways in which they are disenfranchised, for example wealth and class), then any hint of racial equality, be it as benign as desegregating a swimming pool, will be perceived by them as a threat. Ditto sexism and homophobia. The bigot may not express this rationale to themselves in such clear terms, but it isn't the kind of reflexive disgust that you're describing either.

  2. Abigail: I've been thinking for a day and a half about your comment, and how to respond to it. Because, clearly, you're speaking sense: the first duty of care is to prevent people acting in sexist, racist and homophobic ways. And the core point of your second paragraph (which I take to be 'these prejudices are always about power relations in the first instance') is clearly also true. Nonetheless, I find myself disagreeing with your disagreement, and I'm trying to think through how to articulate why.

    You say you are uninterested in the feelings of bigots; but your second paragraph suggests you are indeed interested in them, at least far enough to want to diagnose their underlying rationale. Perhaps your first paragraph is about repudiating the sense that 'bigots have feelings too' and 'we must respect the tender emotions of racists just as much as anybody else'. If that's the impression I gave in the original post then I did indeed express myself poorly, because that's not what I meant at all. My interest is instrumental, not absolutist-ethical. I'm suggesting that the legislation of external behaviour, the epiphenomena of bigotry, only takes us so far: certain modes of speech are outlawed, so bigots switch to dog-whistle phrasing. Certain mode of action are outlawed, and bigots go about simmering with a resentment and work with all their human ingenuity to disadvantage others in all the ways still permitted within the law. Better, surely, would for people not to focus their negative emotions onto symbolic targets like 'the black man', 'the homosexual', 'the woman' and so on.

    And this is the force of the line you quote in your second paragraph. To say that "such prejudice is not based on rationality or intellect" is, precisely, to say "such prejudice is irrational and stupid". And the point of saying that is to say that challenging this prejudice on rational, intellectual grounds is unlikely to be successful when it comes to changing bigots' minds. If you're suggesting that we shouldn't be bothering ourselves trying to change people's minds on this, we should just contain them -- I don't know if I agree with that. The crcial question, it seems to me, is: what is likely to be the most effective strategy when it comes to making such prejudice less of a blight on the future than it has been on the past. High horsing doesn't seem to me effective; and dismissing, or demonising, bigots likewise. Prejudice is widespread not because people are broadly evil, but because these prejudices are cultural ingrained and psychological convenient ways for people to deal with feelings of resentment, powerlessness (or perceived powerlessness), anger, bitterness and so on. How to make this better?

  3. Abigail, I have to disagree with something as well. I think this...

    " At the heart of every prejudice is a very cold, easily comprehended logic. The bigot enforces prejudice because in so doing he enforces his own supremacy and privilege"

    ...deals very much with power structures -- one group already having the ability to force its will, to some extent, on another group. This works within the definition of racism that I've been given to understand, but bigotry is not quite the same thing.

    An example: I am African American according to my legal paperwork. According to my upbringing and experience, I am slightly more than half Afro-Caribbean, and have spent my life navigating between these two groups.

    Neither group in the West has very much power over the other at all — indeed the existing power structures can barely (or refuse to) tell them apart. Whether or not one is “better” or “above” or "more powerful" than the other depends on who you ask and swings and alternates like a set of scales (that measure microscopic units). They differ in culture, idiom, and outlook, and in the worst cases have some of the most awful things to say about each other that you can imagine. Neither group has very much power to withhold anything from the other. They can manage a huge dust-up on the Internet from time to time, like the (distasteful) side-picking I witnessed during the Chris Brown/Rihanna abuse debacle. (There might be histories of gang violence that I am unaware of — the dominant narratives, again, wouldn’t bother to make such a distinction.)

    Arguably there’s the single, ostensible benefit of saying “they’re not better than me, please give me the job” to the dominant power structure, but once the first generation has lost their accents and the confidence that comes from being “a majority back home” there really is nothing to this, if indeed there ever was. But the “us” and “them” still stands, even if only as snide comments over family dinner. (I should point out, this gets even more complicated when the family contains branches from either side.)

    This is the example I’m most familiar with — there are countless others. (I admit I am simplifying due to space.) I cannot attribute this to rationalism.

    It could be I’m picking an unnecessary nit here — but the analogy is niggling at me. I feel like there’s something more complex that isn’t being teased out enough. The hierarchy of power structure is being treated as more clear-cut than it actually is, I think. I have to ponder this some more.