Hunger-Striking and Ideal Judges

August 31, 2013

As some of you know, I have been on hunger-strike this week as a small token of solidarity with the detainees held without trial at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. During this week I have taken on only water, non-calorific flavoured water, and small amounts of salt. It’s been quite the experience.

There’s plenty to hate about being on hunger-strike. The weakness, the waves of nausea, the occasional vomiting, the broken sleep, the frustrating sense that one’s life is on hold, the coming and going of mental clarity, and, of course, the intense unabating hunger.

But there have also been some more pleasant surprises. The lack of energy brings with it a certain heightened consciousness of one’s embodied self. The body ceases to be a cage in which a bare Cartesian ego is imprisoned, instead revealing itself as a quite miraculous thing in which the mental and the physical are intimately befriended, even if, as with many friendships, there are occasional violent disagreements. Another surprise has been the way fasting has altered my sense of taste and smell. Following one bout of vomiting, water, plain Jane tap water, tasted sweet, literally sweet. As in, “who dumped sugar in my water?” sweet. This is an extraordinary experience. It led me to wonder whether it might explain why Germans call freshwater (as opposed to saltwater) Süßwasser—literally, sweet-water. Just a thought.

The experience with water was a one-off. But the most pleasant surprise is something that has persisted since around day 3; that is my heightened sense of smell. Not only has it been sharpened, but the smell of food in particular has become intensely pleasurable. I put it to you that you haven’t smelled food—really smelled food—until you haven’t eaten for a few days. A lot of people curious about the phenomenology of fasting have apologized for eating near me, or remarked that I “must dread passing by restaurants”, or something to that effect. But they’re mistaken. The smell, and to a lesser extent the sight, of food has been one of the few things bringing me sensory pleasure during this week of denial.

This, I think, raises an interesting philosophical issue. I can’t possibly do it justice in this short(ish) post, but I’ll sketch some of my thoughts out in what follows.

Many philosophers, following Hume, have thought that any standard of aesthetic goodness (or perhaps, merely for settling aesthetic disputes)[1] must be grounded in the notion of an ideal appreciator. This is someone whose set of abilities for appreciating artworks and other aesthetic objects make her an authority for others.

Hume describes the requisite abilities in a “true judge” as follows:

“Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”[2]

Here’s a question: what if some of these standards, whether Hume’s or better ones, are in tension? I don’t mean in logical tension. There’s no contradiction between being free from prejudice and being well-practiced in appreciation, for instance. But what about what we might call human tensions—tensions in the joint realizability of abilities and characteristics in a human being.

My experience on the hunger-strike has made this troubling possibility acute. For, if we include the olfactory within the domain of the aesthetic (and I don’t see why paradigmatic artworks couldn’t include olfactory components, even if in fact they rarely do), then it seems to me that an ideal appreciator just might be someone who, among other qualifications, exists several days into a fast.[3] And here’s where the tension arises. For, a person on a fast is hardly ideal in many other respects. She isn’t comfortable, she’s less patient, and her mind is often foggy. All of these characteristics are ones we’d want to eliminate from our ideal appreciator, even if Hume doesn’t do so explicitly. Hume stressed that his true judges would be rare. But this suggests they might not exist at all.

The obvious response goes something like this: you’re missing the point. An ideal appreciator is just that: ideal. It’s nothing more than a theoretical construct. There’s no requirement that any person actually embody, or be able to embody, all the relevant abilities and characteristics.

The problem with such a response is that it flies in the face of the very human aspect of aesthetic appreciation. Superhuman aesthetic standards, it strikes me, are simply irrelevant on any plausible aesthetic theory. Consider piano flourishes that are literally too fast for us to hear, although a superhuman might appreciate them, or narratives that are so incredibly complicated no-one can follow them, although, again, a superhuman might. A plausible response to such cases, I suggest, is: who cares what the superhuman would think? If the art was created for human appreciation, then rococo complexity and indiscernible speed aren’t aesthetic merits. If anything, they’re defects.

One might, of course, have the rare person with the olfactory sensitivity of someone on hunger-strike, but who isn’t actually on hunger-strike. The possibility I’m raising is just that we might also not have such a person, and worse still, that we can’t (where the strength of this modal operator is suitably qualified, as above). To the extent that we want our ideal judges in the aesthetic domain to be realizable, not just in principle, this looks like a problem.


[1]  Something along these lines is pursued in James Shelley’s 2013 article, “Hume and the Joint Verdict of True Judges”, published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

[2] David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste

[3]  One might resist this on the grounds that such a person is apt to delight in every smell without discrimination. I don’t think this is the case. But in any case, I want to put this worry to one side.

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Philosophy in an Unjust World

August 27, 2013

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“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern.” – Karl Marx, These über Feuerbach.

A 2009 article in the Miami Herald describes the policy at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp library.[1] The policy is outlined on a slip of paper that was returned to a Pentagon lawyer along with the book he tried to donate to the library—an Arabic translation of Noam Chomsky’s Interventions. The book was refused; the slip of paper offers some explanation why.

The document divides potential Guantanamo literature into two classes: Authorized and Restricted. On the Authorized side, one finds a ragbag of categories: “Poetry”, “Fiction”, “Nature”, “Sports”, “Mathematics”, “Puzzles and Sudoku”, “Chemistry”, “Agriculture”, “Electronics” etc. The categories are rough-and-ready and pitched at differing levels of generality (call me crazy, but I’m willing to forgive the authors for lacking a fully worked out taxonomy of literary types). On the Restricted side, meanwhile, things get a little edgier. One finds categories like “Military Topics”, “Excessive Graphic Violence”, “Racial and Cultural Hate Groups and Ideologies (i.e. Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Western)”. In a touch of dark irony, the Restricted list also includes “Travel Offers”. You know… in case the detainees get any ideas.

For me, the most interesting part of the document, however, is a small and unique parenthetical qualification on the Authorized side. Sat awkwardly between Sudoku and Sociology (a wry comment on the state of the discipline, perhaps?) is the entry: “Philosophy (limited)”.

Limited. Why? A little reflection is enough to begin answering this question. Among philosophy’s hallmarks—the normative, the conceptual, the a priori etc.—is the discipline’s skeptical attitude. Philosophy is an art form that questions even the most fundamental assumptions, including some of the deepest commitments, real or alleged, of other disciplines—the existence of numbers, or the prospects of scientific progress, for example. In a similar vein, philosophers also question social practices and institutions such as modern norms of feminine appearance, the distribution of goods in a society, or the circumstances that make war permissible. This kind of thoroughgoing skepticism, I propose, makes the people who run an institution like Guantanamo uncomfortable. The Guantanamos of the world can only survive to the extent that they evade critical eyes. Philosophy—at least, some kinds of philosophy—has the potential to expose injustice and thereby incite the slighted and their supporters to action. Gitmo no likey.

Modern professional philosophers are in many respects perfectly suited to take such action. Philosophers are able to bring an incredible potential for critical thinking to any given problem, coupled with their relative wealth, access to incredible informational resources, and ability, if they’re lucky, to manage much of their own time. It’s for these reasons that I’m often disappointed at how much time philosophers, myself included, spend on mastering sometimes incredibly arcane bodies of knowledge at the exclusion of other more pressing demands. It’s partly for these reasons that I decided to protest the injustice the U.S. government is perpetrating at Guantanamo Bay.

The action—a week-long fast and a few days distributing literature about the state of Guantanamo—is largely symbolic. And I don’t imagine it will achieve much. But I do hope it reaffirms in fellow philosophers, and similarly situated others, to recognize their position as highly-trained critical thinkers in an unforgiving world, and the responsibility that comes with that. Just one day into the strike, I find the response encouraging.

Man I’m hungry.