‘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.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The White "House"

I really don’t care, do u

I caught an old episode of House M.D. the other day.

It was almost unwatchable.

Don't get me wrong: it was sharply written, dramatic, well-made—it was the episode where House ‘saves’ a dwarf's daughter from growing up as a dwarf herself by diagnosing a tumour on the girl's pituitary gland, spending a good deal of time making cruel fun of the mother's dwarfism into the bargain. Hugh Laurie was as watchable as ever (always nice to see old Soupy Twist turn his hand to drama). And whilst I was never a super-fan of the show when it was originally broadcast I used to watch it from time to time, and generally I enjoyed it. There were a couple of years when it was pretty much unavoidable, after all: ‘the most-watched television program in the world in 2008’ according to Wikipedia. But to watch it a decade later, after all that has happened in the world, is to encounter a completely different text.

The conceit of the show is that Dr House, the title character, is a hospital doctor diagnostic genius with an abrasive personality. Like a kind of medical Sherlock Holmes he solves intractable illnesses and cures his patients, whilst also insulting people, making cruelly funny comments and generally being an arsehole. We are ‘supposed’ to forgive him his manner, since his genius is of the troubled variety: a gammy leg means he walks with a stick and is in constant pain (he's constantly cadging, or actively stealing, opioids because of this, the lovable-irascible old drug addict!) We later discover, though I'm a little hazy on the details, that he's manic-depressive, has a troubled past, yaddayadda, so we give him a pass for his rudeness. After all: he's a genius! His brilliance saves lives!

Except we don't give him a pass for his rudeness. We relish it. It's why we watch the show. House is licensed, by the weirdly specific and bizarre format of the show in which he appears, to say all sorts of taboo and outrageous things, and we are licensed, vicariously, to enjoy that fact. And that has, I'd say, aged very badly. Because House's performance of obnoxiousness has, in a broader sense, become today's whole political climate. The character's ‘medical genius’, which notionally justifies his rudeness, is a pretext. We don't excuse his rudeness because he's a troubled genius; we tell ourselves that he's a troubled genius in order that we can enjoy his rudeness.

On the Right nowadays this is known as being ‘anti-politically-correct’, and it usually folds itself into a notionally exculpatory narrative. If we replace the phrase ‘political correctness’ with the word ‘courtesy’, or if we call anti-political-correctness bullying, it throws an uglifying kind of spotlight on what has become very widespread behaviour. So instead the anti-PC crowd say: nobody wants to be rude for rudeness sake, but we have to be strong, we have to tell hard truths, the cosmos doesn't provide safe-spaces, snowflake youngsters today need to toughen up. And so on. None of it is true, but truth isn't the point. The point is the joy of shuffling off the discontents of repressing your own objectionable thoughts and feelings, of venting what you really feel; and causing pain to others (owning the libs, as the phrase goes) is just the icing on the cake. Today's Dr House is Donald Trump, and his discourtesy, bullying and rudeness is justified not by any troubled genius backstory or any body-of-expertise on which lives depend, but by a genius for being discourteous, bullying and rude. The obnoxiousness is its own ground, and its own justification, and it frees his followers to indulge the intoxicating jouissance of doing likewise. It's fun to be the bully, in direct proportion to how un-fun it is to be bullied. House is President now, except instead of being the Sherlock Holmes of medical diagnosis, he is the Sherlock Holmes of the racist ressentiment of white voters. Hence this blog's title.

A similar discursive logic predominates on the Left, too. Here it's framed not as an attack on ‘political-correctness’ so much as an animadversion towards ‘tone policing’, an insistence that any attempt to centre discussion, and especially disagreement, on protocols of courtesy is actually a bad-faith attempt to shut down discussion and disagreement altogether. The logic is: oppressed groups are angry and are right to be angry; the articulation of their anger is righteous. You're speaking truth to power, punching up and so on. These are truths the world needs to hear. I tend to think that's right, actually; these are usually truths the world needs to hear. But I also tend to think that the apotheosis of anger into political discourse is counter-productive to the world hearing part of the equation. There is a left-wing jouissance, not exactly equivalent to the right-wing anti-PC Trumpian joussiance, and certainly not symmetrical in terms of today's balance of power (the hard right is on the ascendancy at the moment, after all), but a jouissance nonetheless that tends to corrode practical strategies of persuasion. People rarely change their minds because others are yelling at them, although people do something change their minds. If we're interested in this latter as a practical political goal it's going to be worth working practically towards common ground. There's little of that going on right now, though. Alan Jacobs argues that it is vindictiveness that is ‘the great moral crisis of our time’ and I wonder if he isn't right: ‘social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns.’ Making other people miserable also tends to make you miserable, with the added danger that this very misery is liable to fuel further anger at the world. This is at the root of Nietzsche's diagnosis of ressentiment as a psychopathology. It gives me no personal satisfaction to believe, as I do, that Donald Trump, away from the ego-boost of addressing his rallies of adoring fans, is often miserable. I'm sure he is. But I also suspect that his own misery ‘reads’ to him as anger (depression often works that way too) and that he has habituated himself over many decades into directing that anger at others. It's a very bad strategy for living. We ought not to follow his lead in this.

Conceivably we justify our unpleasantness to others in terms of our own misery. Scenes of Hugh Laurie's House, sitting at home solus drinking whisky, popping pills and scowling at the miserable loneliness he inhabits, work in the show as a kind of justification for his horribleness, somewhat akin the medical principle of inoculation. And the success of House as a show grew out of a time when this kind of obnoxiousness did not define mainstream public discourse in the way it now does. I suppose it seemed rock-and-roll back then; it had the frisson of transgression. There's nothing transgressive about it now, it's solidly mainstream. It's sheer old white guy braying nastiness. In fact being miserable yourself is no justification for making other people miserable. For these reasons I honestly did not enjoy watching this particular House rerun, and honestly don't think I'll be catching any more.


  1. Thank you for this.

    I think one thing that sometimes draws me to some more youth oriented media is that it often tries to grapple with becoming a better person and maturation, albeit often in oversimplified terms or leaving out many of the slings and arrows of adulthood, particularly the more subtle and slow building ones. But I'll take that over more adult-focused media that doesn't try to explore bigger questions or worse derives its pleasure from horribleness.

    Ultimately, there's media, often books, that do both so ultimately I need to spend less time on social media and more time read. To my chagrin, I haven't yet gotten to your books, but they just jumped up to the top of queue. (Particularly since I already backed Black Prince as, iirk, Alan Jacobs had suggested my mortal soul was in peril if I did not).

    But back on point, I think that's a good diagnosis for our time. I think it's a apt critique of liberals/progressive that we're prone to factionalism and that we don't take our own side in a putsch. But like all complicated creatures and movements we have a range of virtues and flaws, and as the time changes, so to do the ones that we must cultivate and those that pose us and others the greatest risk.

  2. I don't think that's a correct reading.

    Dr. House "rudeness" is an effective tool. There is a theme of political-correctness, but because there's a different angle to look at it.

    That rudeness is a tool to cut away all the rhetoric. It's a way to remove the baggage of social interactions, feel good speeches and everything that manipulates perception but ignores reality. The cocoon of human representation that is always a convenient distortion of the real.

    Dr. House "no bullshit" attitude matches his competence: because he's not distracted by the superfluous. And because of that, he has a vision and a focus that is almost like a superpower. He sees under the skin of human/distorted reality. And so he sees "truthfully".

    Dr. House is the opposite of Trump because Trump is first and foremost an incompetent and a manipulator. He would only see what he wants to see, and that's not good for a doctor.

    He's smart because he's not distracted by the baggage of rhetoric. He's not swayed by emotional speeches. He has an inhuman sight, but inhuman here means objective, scientific, all seeing. Because it simply does away with the baggage of omnipresence of human emotional manipulation.

    The political climate represents the OPPOSITE. It's built on the rhetoric. It has not an ounce of truth because it's all about perception, all about the skin.

  3. And by the way, that's what he is: an avatar of the scientific method, in all its inhumanity.

    It's rude to say: "the theory you've worked on is false." But that's how the scientific method works and why it's different from everything else. It tells you that you're wrong. No matter how much you're invested in that theory, no matter how much you want and need to be true. No matter how much you BELIEVE in it.

    The human is the cocoon of the artificial world. It's subjective, it's romantic. And the inhuman is the outside, it is the reality, the hard data, the objectivity. That inhuman side is impersonal and cold. It has no empathy or respect. It's just what it is in its soulless deterministic cycle. A mechanism.

    1. I see what you're arguing, I think; but I'm not sure I agree. Because he's not an avatar of science, he's a person. He's not inhuman, he is very particularly human. "I'm an avatar of science, telling people the unvarnished truth" might well be what he tells himself to justify his antisocial manner, but it's a pretext. Or so it seems to me.

  4. Very interesting, Adam.

    I'm currently watching Curb Your Enthusiasm. As you may know, it originally aired between 2000 and 2011 (and has come back in 2017). I didn't watch it back then, but now it's streaming on Amazon, so I've been watching it. And I'm thinking that there are things on that show that would play rather differently these days than they did back then, I"m thinking particularly about some of his interactions with blacks and with women.

    The show is about a semiretired writer who made a bundle as co-creator and writer for a hit comedy series. The comedy series is Seinfeld and our protagonist is named Larry David and he's played by the real Larry David. So we've got Larry David playing a fictionalized version of himself. The character is narcissistic and self-important and makes social blunder after blunder; he's oblivious of "the baggage of social interactions," to borrow a phrase from Abalieno's. He's not as abrasive as House, but then he doesn't have (compensating) genius either. & the program's a comedy not a drama.

    1. Curb is legendary; but there, surely, the joke is on Larry? Also: House goes out of his way to be cruel, to perform superiority. Larry is just a stubborn old geezer without the social nuance to know when he's crossed a line.

    2. Ah...right, the joke is on Larry. He blunders across a line and then his efforts either to justify or correct lead him to dig a hole that just gets deeper and deeper. And, yes, House is deliberate. It's been several years since I've watched House so I don't know how I'd react post-Trump. FWIW I don't recall that House ever made me (almost literally) squirm like Curb does. But then it blows up in Larry's face and I'm fine again, often laughing out loud.

  5. I am surprised at its popularity. I watched it for ten minutes years ago and turned it off, no one in the household liked it.

    I assumed it was playing from observation but it may simple be my own observation. If you ever have the misfortune to watch a suicide victim being cleaned up off a pavement, the cleaning crew may behave in a way that is deeply upsetting and callous beyond belief.

    Its a way of coping when you have to work in horrifying circumstances.

  6. P.s I enjoy you're blog I found this somewhat cold, you do not excuse you attempt to understand and I think that extends to Trump supporters and B.L.M. Not to excuse anger or indeed outright racisim but to understand that anger has a cause, which can be identified and addressed should we desire to actually do so.

    Uncomfortable to read but I am sure that was not you're intention to cause discomfort.