Saturday, September 8, 2012

Someone asked me recently what I think of the use of masks, particularly the Guy Fawkes mask in the Occupy protests.

In general, I think that images, masks, and other kinds of public symbols very rarely, if ever, stay firmly rooted to their original condition of meaning. Visual artists, in fact, often compare their art to children who grow up, leave home, and become their own distinct creatures in their interactions with others. Hence, in general, I think meaning is as varied as interpretation, which invites all sorts of ambiguities that attach to questions we may ask about things like Shakespeare’s plays, stories in the Torah, visual images, sculptures, etc.

The degree to which meaning may be as varied as interpretation partly depends on at least two questions: (a) how vividly attached is the image/symbol to the original conditions of usage, and (b) how widespread is knowledge of the original condition?

Take an example. About two weeks ago, I read a story of a young businessman in India who opened a retail store. Guess what? He named it “Hitler,” and he used the image of the swastika as his store’s brand logo. He claimed that he did not know anything about the Nazis or the atrocities against the Jewish people. He had heard some co-workers at another company he used to work for referring to their supervisor as “Hitler” to indicate how authoritarian, stingy, and frightening was his leadership style. That was his only reference point for the name and logo. For some reason, he wanted to name his new store “Hitler” and use the swastika logo. What’s interesting about this particular incident is that if we examine issues (a) and (b) above, the connections are very tight for the swastika, its actual historical conditions of meaning, and a widely distributed public recognition of the meaning. So in this particular case, the relation between meaning and interpretation has less wiggle room.

The Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco coined a phrase many years ago: “encyclopedias of reference.” He uses this phrase to describe our interpretive filter, the framework of concepts that we use to interpret all the data that comes to us in any form. It is the interaction of the incoming data and our encyclopedias of reference that give birth to interpretation and hence our conferral of meaning onto the things we experience. These encyclopedias of reference contain so many things, but for me personally, they contain films that have deeply affected me. For example, when I think of coming-of-age stories, I think of Lasse Hallström’s film My Life as a Dog, and any time I hear of a young person struggling to make sense of his or her experiences of a complex world, I think of that film. Others probably have other kinds of things in their encyclopedia of reference that they use to interpret their experiences.

In the case described above of the unfortunately ignorant young man who opened his store with a most unfortunate name and logo, a great portion of the world, including the non-Western world, has a shared encyclopedia of reference that confers very similar understandings of the significance of a swastika. Thus, the judgment was rather swift and severe.

Now, what about those Guy Fawkes masks used in the context of the Occupy protests? For the English, their encyclopedia of reference may be the historical Guy Fawkes. But for Americans, who in general are addicted to both pop culture and Hollywood entertainment, I wonder if their encyclopedia of reference is the 2005 film-adaptation of the V comic book. In the film, a huge host of anonymous protesters against the British government appear at Parliament wearing the Guy Fawkes mask, just like the mask of the horribly disfigured anti-government-protagonist in the film.

If that is what the encyclopedia of reference is for the American protesters, perhaps they are seeing the alleged general similarities between the structure of American corporate culture and the dystopian portrait of British authoritarian government in the film V. There is thus a creative fusion between the collective usage of the Guy Fawkes mask in the film and the collective usage of the very same mask in the real life protest of the Occupy movement. Perhaps the uniformity of the mask also underscores the solidarity of the 99% against the 1%. Those of the 99% are totally anonymous, especially to the eyes of the 1%. When the 1% see the protesters with their totally anonymous masks, perhaps the message is, “Hey you! You don’t even see us as individual human beings! And we’re wearing these masks to underscore your deficit.” Hence, the masks in protest become symbolic of both the solidarity of the protesters and the moral critique of the allegedly depersonalizing vision of the 1%.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Occupy Protesters' fashion signals

I have been following some of the Occupy protests with some interest when I’m not overwhelmed by other duties. The practice of protesting and the use of fashion to illustrate the content of the protest have been joined for a very long time. I think of the original British colonists on the eastern shore of America (which at the time of course was partly comprised of a British set of colonies) who protested against the taxation from the British crown. In protest, they dressed themselves in the traditional clothing of the Native American tribes while dumping British tea into the harbors – their attire proclaiming that they identify with the growing, independent sense of America and its new interests and less so with the old British colonial enterprise. The Native American garb during this protest act was not and never was intended to be a disguise in any sense. It was what social scientists call an intentional external signal, every bit as intentional as the iconic raised black glove of Tommie Smith at the Olympics in 1968.

That’s the angle (i.e., signal theory) that helps make sense of and critique the Occupy protesters. As refined and developed as human beings are, we are still products of evolution, and as such are deeply continuous with the entire biological world.

For example, take the majestic and sometimes laughably exaggerated peacock. The brilliant colors are a signal to others (typically to females) that one is worthy of mating. The general idea is that animals, including humans, use a plethora of nonverbal signals to instruct others how and where to categorize the signaler. In fact, before the (more or less) egalitarian fashion culture we now inhabit, there was a time when particular kinds of fabrics were ONLY allowed to be worn by particular social and economic classes, usually the upper classes. Crossing that fashion line was punishable by law. In that social context, it is obvious how the nonverbal donning of a mere fabric would be a signal about how and where on the class system to categorize the fabric wearer in question.

In terms of fashion in the context of political protest, the human practice of signaling goes in two directions. First, the kind of fashion (clothing, hair, accessories, skin art, etc.) sends a signal to others to communicate one’s identification with a cause or ideology, but there is an equally important second signal. That second signal is the one that is sent to oneself. This sounds strange, but it becomes less strange when we are willing to grant that self-knowledge comes less from introspection of our own private thoughts and more from how we interpret our own observable actions. Example of observing one’s own action: Suppose I am at a grocery store, and a homeless person approaches me to ask me to buy him a meal. Let us say that I do so. As I am buying this person a meal, I am observing my own action, but I also interpret my own action and give it a meaning. The interpretation, let us say, is that “I am a generous and caring person” or something like that. In my memories of that action, I revive the same interpretation and thereby give my own moral identity its meaning. Hence, whenever I send a signal to others, I am also sending that signal to myself.

The connection with fashion in the context of this signal theory is that what one chooses to wear is a signal in both of the ways above. In the context of political protest, as a marker of the first type of signal, it is a message to others who witness the protest and fashion that the protester aligns herself with a particular ideology – for example, “unfettered corporate greed degrades humanity” or something like that. The reflective protester may even choose fashion that aligns herself more self-consciously and consistently with the anti-corporate ideology. She may intentionally wear items that are second-hand thrift shop items. She may intentionally wear hand-me-downs during the protest or other strategically designed signals to observers that highlight the distance between the protesters’ ideas and those of an allegedly greed-driven corporate America. The distance is highlighted by both the content of the message and the appearance of the protesters. In this way, the fashion is in a relationship of concord with the content of the protest.

This perspective of signal theory also opens an avenue for critique. If one searches through the many photographs of the various Occupy protests that have occurred, especially the ones in New York City, one will see protesters wearing clothing and accessories with the brands and logos of the very sort of corporate entities their protest is supposed to be criticizing! Mixed signals! One wonders about the degree to which they are sincere or perhaps just self-deluded about their convictions. Are they not picking up on their own signals? This curious situation of mixed signals has not been lost on international media. Many British news outlets have quipped that many of the New York protesters are actually engaged in a grass roots fashion parade that pretends to be a protest movement. The very fact that the British media are raising the possibility of this insincerity is because they already recognize that form (self-presentation, of which fashion is primary) should align consistently with function (content of the protest, anti-corporate message, etc.). Where there is a disconnection, there is the invitation for suspicion.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

rambling about Kant's shadow

Here’s an outlandish, famous saying that has a claim to being true: “Most of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”

Time will tell if the following outlandish claim is also true: “Most of post-scientific-revolution philosophy is a footnote to Kant.” When I think about the shape of philosophy after the close of the early modern era, it really is stunning to see the length of Kant’s shadow.

When Kant (in a creative subversion of Plato’s spirit) split realms into the noumenal and phenomenal, and then argues that beliefs about the traditional realm of Being can only be justified by practical rationality (e.g., theoretical postulates about, say, The Good, required by the operation of the moral law), he affected the future state of philosophy in the United States in rather intense ways.

This idea that what many at the time considered the most important kind of philosophical beliefs (Forms, Being, God, the Good, etc. – all capitalized for drama) could only be arrived at in a very transmuted form via practical or pragmatic philosophy energized early American intellectuals such as William James.

Since pragmatic or practical rationality occurs in the context of community and society, the notion of deeply embedded social practices become a motif of the early American pragmatists. This is quite a bit of a different emphasis than the methodological solipsism one finds in Descartes’ method.

The intense reaction against this notion that praxis as a philosophical first principle reigns supreme was spearheaded by giants such as G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell who argued that some form of conceptual analysis is the way to reinterpret and thereby save in a fascinating way the spirit (if not the letter) of the old Platonic impulse for formal knowledge. The radical success of this analytic program, initially targeted against the German and British Idealists, ended up keeping American pragmatism down in the American universities for at least half a century.

The analytic program had its excesses which bred counter-excesses from the other side, such as the reductionism of the agent to her social world, a kind of socio-political-economic determinism, where the individual is really just a determined atom relative to the larger cultural nexus of causes and effects. And because social relations are, by their very nature, located in a particular place and time, this invited historicism, which to my mind is another kind of reductionism, only on the other side of the aisle. Not to be outdone, I suppose that one might consider the agent as mere smoke to neurophysiological fire as another kind of reductionism.The main difference is that the deterministic nexus is located in the skull rather than in society.

I think this big argument – this conflict between the gods and titans – about (i) the so-called “big questions” about being, goodness, truth, and agency (throw in beauty if you distinguish it from these previous big ideas) and (ii) the method for answering them is still alive and kicking. The analytic paradigm has evolved in amazing ways. The pragmatic, praxis oriented program has also moved in some amazing directions, and the delightful thing about this joint evolution is that the best versions of each side have moved lock-step with the advance of empirical non-reductionistic science.

Maybe this is a sign that progress can happen, even in philosophy.