onsdag 29. mai 2013

Simply tasteless?

I have just finished watching the TV series Holocaust. This is widely regarded as a classic, and has won several awards. But to me it was just another typical family drama, albeit set against an untypical historical background. The historical circumstances is, of course, the main "attraction" here, but, disappointingly, they are too often unconvincingly depicted.

The quality of the acting is, given the line-up of famous actors, surprisingly poor (with Michael Moriarty as the cold and creepy Erik Dorff as an honourable exception). Lack of visual despair sometimes makes it look as though the harassment never really bother the Jews. The dialogues are sometimes very awkward. From time to time the characters say things in the interest of the audience; they explain things that must be obvious to anyone in their vicinity, but which the uninformed TV viewer may not be aware of. Worse still is the apparent lack of interest for accuracy. The concentration camps seem wholly unreal. While Primo Levi's inmates are reduced to bundles of primal instincts, the Jews in this version of Auschwitz discuss their terrible lot with sometimes pompous phrases. Everything looks too clean and too healthy too. When seeing well nourished prisoners in pristine looking outfits slaving day in and out under backbreaking labour without a single drop of sweat on their faces, the only thing that kept me from laughing was the sheer injustice of it. Throughout the nine hours I was neither moved nor shocked once, except for when historical footage appeared on screen. The brutality simply was not brutal enough and the suffering not nearly deep enough.

The makers of Holocaust seem to me to have been either too ambitious, in wanting to show all sides and sites of the Holocaust, or not quite ambitious enough, in wanting to do so using only a limited number of characters. As in my childhood's favourite TV series, Once Upon a Time...Manwhere the history of mankind is illustrated from the point of view of a group that is always composed of similar recurring figures, the handful of characters in Holocaust simply turn up at too many significant points in history for the story to be credible.

tirsdag 14. mai 2013

The horror! The horror!

"The reasons why the Allies fought against Germany were complex, but many people believe rightly that the Holocaust itself would have proved sufficient reason," Raimond Gaita writes in The Philosopher's Dog:

But ... no one responds, and I think no one can seriously wish to respond, to the slaughter of animals as though it justified taking up arms against farmers, butchers and people who work in abattoirs. That can hardly be irrelevant to how we should understand the moral character of our indifference to the slaughter of animals. It must also inform the moral character of any other analogies we may be tempted to draw between the Holocaust and our treatment of animals.

This is an important warning, I think, whenever one, for whatever reason, is tempted to make that comparison. Recently, both Duncan Richter and Matthew Pianalto have blogged about this dreaded comparison. In his post, Richter criticises Stuart Rachels for discussing this question without referring to the works of J.M. Coetzee. I am not going to make the same mistake, but start by quoting from Elizabeth Costello, the novel Rai Gaita is writing about:

It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.

It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, “Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.” And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says, “Treblinka – 100% human stereate.” Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this?

Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why cant’t you? Why cant you?

"The force of [this] passage," comments Gaita, "is in its rhetoric rather than in its moral clarity":

Or, at any rate, when I step back to assess critically its undeniable power, I find nothing in it that would make me revise my claim that I cannot, and that I know no one else who can, respond to the killing of animals as though it were mass murder. The analogy Costello draws is, I believe, foolish and also offensive ... because we do not and cannot respond to what happens in the abattoir as we respond to murder.

By labeling a text “unclear” we often mean to say that the text is riddled by confused or inconsistent thinking: As no one is prepared to take up arms against farmers and butchers, as many were against the Nazis, then it is foolish to draw the analogy between animal slaughter and the Holocaust. This is at least a part of Gaita’s critique. But I am not convinced. I am not convinced that Costello is making a (morally confused) argument from analogy to the effect that similar reactions are called for in the case of slaughterhouses as it were in the case of Treblinka; I am not sure there is an argument here at all. I am more inclined to read Costello as reporting about her own difficulties with modern animal husbandry, and how this uneasiness is alienating her from family and friends, who do not share her view on the human-animal-relationship. Costello seems to oscillate between agreeing that people’s animal consumption is perfectly ordinary, and thinking this must be a part of a terrible nightmare. Sometimes she too may walk past the butcher’s window without thinking twice about the meat sausages on display, but at other times -- perhaps most times -- she reacts to these things with tremendous force.

It is as with Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit-image. When you see the duck, the rabbit is hidden from view; when you see the rabbit, the duck is hidden; you cannot focus on both at once; but the hidden figure is always there, and you know that it may re-emerge anytime. Similarly, Costello seems to move easily among people, she recognises human kindness when she sees it, but at the same time she is constantly aware that there is something wrong with these people (“that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions”), and that this something might come into view anytime and anywhere to overpower her with great horror. Someone might invite her home for tea and a friendly chat, but as she sits down in the host’s beautiful and comfortable leather sofa, the screams from the abattoir might spoil the moment for her. It is understandable (as is testified by the narrative, and by Costello’s use of the phrase “seemingly normal relations”) why this wariness would put strains on her relations with other people.

On my reading, then, Costello’s Treblinka reference is not so much an attempt to compare intensive farming to the Holocaust, as it is an expression of more private associations. Shocked by the pains animals suffer in man’s custody, and angered by indifferent people who are unable or unwilling to share her condemnation of this maltreatment, Elizabeth Costello looks for expressions that can do justice to the intensity of her own revulsion. I believe such expressive use of “the dreaded comparison” to be at least as common among animal activists as genuine attempts to compare factory farming to the Holocaust, and to measure the pains and the horrors against each other. Such attempts do of course exist (for example in the Rachels essay Richter writes about: "To compare industrial farming to the Holocaust, let’s consider the number of victims involved in each."). Some are unquestionably “foolish and also offensive,” to borrow Gaita’s phrase; but I am not convinced, as is sometimes claimed, that you may never draw this analogy.

Earlier I have written that you can compare anything to everything. Comparing the Holocaust to intensive animal agriculture cannot, as some claim, be problematic in itself (whatever that could mean: after all, any comparison must be used one way or another). The crux of the matter is not what you compare to what, but the manner in which you make that comparison. Whether the comparison between animal husbandry and the Holocaust is foolish and offensive depends on what similarities you find, the way in which you make these similarities explicit, and what you hope to achieve by making these similarities stand out.

Though I still believe this is basically true -- there are undeniable similarities that one may point to without acting foolishly -- but I am not sure animal activists ever need to. The point in drawing the analogy (I am thinking of the genuine comparison not the expressive use of it) is not to offend anyone with saying anything (offending or foolish) about the Holocaust, but to make the horrors of factory farming perspicuous to people. But the best way to achieve this, I believe, simply is to report on the horrors that go on behind closed doors. Most people are not indifferent to hearing of maltreated and suffering animals. Only someone with a stony heart would need such reports to be illustrated by "explaining" images from concentration camps in order to get the point. (And if someone truly is unmoved by animal suffering, it is hard to believe that any analogy would make any difference.) This Holocaust rhetoric could possibly give the wrong impression too. What one objects to in factory farming isn't that it shares certain features with the Holocaust. The industrialisation of animal agriculture (and everything that entails: the confinement, the mechanised rough treatment, the ruthless conveyer belt killings in slaughter factories, and so on) isn't worse for resembling the Holocaust in some respects. What is wrong with this industrialisation, after all, isn’t the fact that the Nazis used similar methods, but the character of these methods themselves. What is needed then, in order to show others the evil in it, is not a comparison, but detailed, realistic descriptions of these methods and sensitive reflections on what they entail for the victims, the animals.

lørdag 11. mai 2013

Dirty dancing.

Reading J.M. Coetzee's novel Youth tonight I came across this striking passage:
Dancing makes sense only when it is interpreted as something else, something that people prefer not to admit. That something else is the real thing: the dance is merely a cover. Inviting a girl to dance stands for inviting her to have intercourse; accepting the invitation stands for agreeing to have intercourse; and dancing is a miming and a foreshadowing of intercourse. So obvious are the correspondences that he wonders why people bother with dancing at all. Why the dressing up; why the ritual motions; why the huge sham? (p. 89-90)
Which made me think of this:
According to [Alain] de Botton, people who think they are going to nightclubs just to dance, drink, and have fun are actually unconsciously driven by the will to live to seek opportunities for reproduction.... We are driven by forces that we rarely see clearly and that are themselves blind. So we don't know what is going on, what we are chasing, except in vague terms. The underlying, meaningless truth is veiled from us.
Richter is unquestionably right about the Schopenhauerian view on human existence. Gloomy though this view may be, de Botton, Schopenhauer and John (the main person in the novel) are certainly on to something. We often find our desires mystical and of unknown origin. But this may not be the whole story about what people find attractive about nightlife. John's cynical remarks on dancing comes in the wake of his struggle to understand why "people who were already married should go to the trouble of dressing up and going to a hotel to dance when they could have done it just as well in their living room, to music on the radio". To a Schopenhauerian this would seem puzzling. But perhaps there is something valuable in the experience of dancing among others that the Schopenhauerian view systematically overlooks. Married couples, possibly ageing and well beyond the reproductive stage of their lives, may go to nightclubs simply to dance, drink and have fun. But to Schopenhauer this phenomenon would surely seem even more absurd. Senior dance clubs are meaningless even from the perspective of the Will. Elderly dancers are not only moving to the beat of a blind impulse, but moving to the beat of a blind and utterly impotent impulse! Reproduction is still what dancing is all about, but for these dancers reproduction is a biological impossibility. -- Of course, one can always answer, as John's mother insists, that dancing is good exercise.

mandag 6. mai 2013


Last night the Norwegian ice hockey team continued its winning streak against the fighting Danes in the World Championship, a result that places Norway on top of the group (and Denmark at the bottom of it). Hooray! Yesterday also marked the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard's birth, so I'm sure there were smiling faces on the streets of Copenhagen last night too.

torsdag 2. mai 2013


Forleden dag kritiserte jeg en artikkel av språkfilosofen Georg Kjøll. Jeg antydet at forfatteren gjorde språklig mening unødvendig mystisk. Nå ser jeg at Kjøll har skrevet bok om emnet. Her er teksten på vaskeseddelen:
Tenker du på norsk? Kan du tenke på ting du ikke kan beskrive med norske ord? Hvordan vet du hva ord betyr? Hvordan har du lært deg ordene du kan, og hvordan vet du at de har samme mening når du og andre bruker dem i forskjellige sammenhenger? Å drive med språkfilosofi er å stille de store spørsmålene om språk, tanke og kommunikasjon. I denne boken presenterer Georg Kjøll mange av svarene som har vært gitt gjennom de siste 2500 årene, og undersøker hva vi egentlig kan vite om ordene og setningene vi bruker. 
Forfatteren tar for seg en rekke av de mest sentrale og grunnleggende filosofiske problemene i studiet av språk. På en lettfattelig måte diskuterer han blant annet hvor ords mening kommer fra, om ordmening egentlig kan defineres, om det finnes en klar sammenheng mellom språkevne og intelligens, og om vi tenker ved hjelp av mentale bilder. Kjøll presenterer de mest sentrale teoriene til filosofer som Platon, Ludwig Wittgenstein og Paul Grice, samtidig som han gjennomgår nyere utviklingstrekk i forskning på språklig mening.
Kanskje jeg leste artikkelen på feil premisser. Artikkelen var muligens ikke ment som en fullgod behandling av meningsspørsmålet, men snarere som en interessevekker (og hva er vel da bedre enn å innhylle temaet i et skjær av mystikk?). Blant de tingene jeg etterlyste var et wittgensteinsk perspektiv. Det blir spennende å se hva Kjøll gjør ut av det i boken.

onsdag 1. mai 2013

Chicken or the Egg?

Earlier tonight I saw the last half of an American science documentary about asteroids. Throughout history billions of these rocks have crashed into Earth. Many of them contain ice, so supposedly the blue colour on our planet comes from such impacts. Some asteroids even seem to carry liquid water; and if that is the case, there may be living organisms onboard too; and if that is the case, this may very well be the explanation of how life first came to Earth. So far, nothing worth mentioning. I have heard this story before. However, this was the first time I have ever heard anyone suggest this as a possible answer to the ancient mystery about the origin of life. And what a strange suggestion it was! How did life begin? Why, it came sailing in on the back of an icy rock.