Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pity the Fool

France is undoubtedly a great nation, although we all know it peaked as a place, as a concept, as une histoire almost two thousand years ago, when a small band of indomitable Gauls held off the Roman Empire. Since then, there have been highs (Diderot, Serge Gainsbourg, Zidane) and lows (Vichy France, the sacking of Africa, Henry); the recent arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the extension of his New York visit at Riker's Island is unlikely to be recorded as one of the high points in French history.

This blog is not devoted to z-list celebrities, much less to the Nixonian gnome, Ben Stein, but we did recently dwell upon the question of his comedy and sexism, Parte Une and Parte Deux; although I thought I firmly closed the door on him, he's slipped back into our consciousness by writing a wretched little piece for The American Spectator in which he rushes to defend the honour and reputation and presumed innocence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn by slandering hotel maids, crying class warfare while evoking the image of the guillotine, and saying that, Come on, a short fat guy can't sexually assault a woman.

Much more interesting is the case made by Bernard-Henri Lévy, who, like me, is a philosopher, and, also like me, tends to go by his initials: BHL. In fact, BHL and I are like two peas in a pod, and might even be mistaken for twins were it not for his far better hair and his inimitable capacity to arch a single eyebrow.

Bernard-Henri Levy

In The Daily Beast, his piece is prefaced by a little blurb:

No one knows if the IMF director is guilty of sexual assault—and by dragging him through the mud, politicians and the press are committing gross acts of injustice, says French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Yes, no one knows what really happened, except, of course, for the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and a widowed refugee mother. But other than them, nobody knows. I would encourage readers to find BHL's piece to dwell on his epistemological scrutiny of what it is we know. And do not know.

If readers do not wish to dwell, I will start the dwelling off for them.

BHL's piece begins with a fact, an irrefutable fact.

"Monday morning."

Yes. Monday morning. Not Tuesday, not Wednesday, definitely not Thursday. I laugh at the thought it might be Friday or Saturday, and cast a melancholic glance at those who think it might be Sunday. And nor is noon, much less afternoon; do not deceive yourselves: it is not evening or night. "Monday morning."

That established, he goes on: "I do not know--no one knows, because there have been no leaks regarding the declarations of the man in question--if Dominique Strauss-Kahn was guilty of the acts he is accused of committing there. . ." We have come to our first epistemological insight from the philosopher. In the world before, the world that precedes ours, in the past, we might have asked whether it is possible that the alleged perpetrator or the alleged victim knows, but this is the world of Julian Assange, and all we can know must come through leaks. A foolish reader of BHL, a real idiot, might say that the implication is that there is "no one" and there is Strauss-Kahn, there is the "no one" who knows, and there is Strauss-Kahn who knows, and that this formulation submerges the alleged victim into "no one." But such a statement would betray a real lack of philosophical insight.

Those who are not philosophers should stop reading now, because it's about to get complicated. Having established not only the epistemological limits of who can know, but also the rhetorical patter of the epistemological question itself, he goes on: "I do not know--but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay--how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York's grand hotels of sending a "cleaning brigade" of two people, in the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet." The opening of this sentence could have come straight out of Derrida: the sly introduction of "on the other hand" without presenting the first hand, the double-barrelling of the question with both epistemological and ontological urgency, all couched in a homely but spry spirit of inquiry from a position of ignorance. The next part of the sentence could also have come straight out of Derrida, or Foucault, or Deleuze and Guattari, or anybody else who has ever spent a night in a New York hotel, especially a grand one: it is simply a fact that chambermaids never walk alone into rooms. To doubt this is something that even Descartes would have considered outre. Chambermaids, like presence and absence or power and truth or being and time, are never without their double.

Having demonstrated that nobody can know what happened, except that nobody can explain the sheer impossibility of a single chambermaid entering a hotel room, we are invited to share what BHL does know: that dime-store psychology is not helpful, that "nothing in the world can justify a man being thrown thus to the dogs", that no suspicion should allow the entire world to revel in this man's disgrace, that no earthly law should allow another woman to be exposed to this slime. Passing through the unknowable into the known, BHL drives towards one truth that stands above all others, an insight that justifies the hyperbole, the aroused rhetoric, his impassioned and devastating study of the inflamed epistemologies of the contemporary soul: the New York tabloid press is a disgrace to the profession.

Oh he is so right! They so are.

BHL goes on to talk about other things he knows about the exploitation of this scandal and the politicking, with a sensuously righteous sneer at those who righteously sneer. What we see in Ben Stein's hack-handed attempt to weasel his way back into the limelight and BHL's priapic defence of his friend is the failure of boorish politics and quasi-philosophical musings to address the sheer nastiness of this situation, however close they stumble to real, fundamental problems about publicity, presumptions of guilt and innocence, to questions of class, race, friendship, politics, and legal process that affect how and what we know; why this nastiness is exploited and enjoyed is a question both men veer away from investigating and answering seriously.

This, on the other hand, begins to say some interesting things:

It's crude, perhaps Onion-quality? But it's infinitely more damning than either Stein's or BHL's analyses as a reflection of those real, fundamental problems about publicity, presumptions of guilt and innocence, those questions of class, race, friendship, politics, and legal process that affect how and what we know, and how nasty this publicity, these presumptions, and these questions are.

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