ad astra per alia porci

value-free public discourse?
July 18, 2010, 5:35 pm
Filed under: current affairs, philosophy | Tags: , , ,

An extended quote from Michael Sandel’s Justice:

The prospect of bringing conceptions of the good life into public discourse about justice and rights may strike you as less than appealing – even frightening. After all, people in pluralist societies such as ours disagree about the best way to live. Liberal political theory was born as an attempt to spare politics and law from becoming embroiled in moral and religious controversies. The philosophies of Kant and Rawls represent the fullest and clearest expression of that ambition.

But this ambition cannot succeed. Many of the most hotly contested issues of justice and rights can’t be debated without taking controversial moral and religious questions. In deciding how to define the rights and duties of citizens, it’s not always possible to set aside competing conceptions of the good life. And even when it’s possible, it may not be desirable.

Asking democratic citizens to leave their moral and religious convictions behind when they enter the public realm may seem a way of ensuring toleration and mutual respect. In practice, however, the opposite can be true. Deciding important public questions while pretending to a neutrality that cannot be achieved is a recipe for backlash and resentment. A politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life. It is also an open invitation to narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.

Quite rightly said. Sadly the Singaporean model of public discourse and its limits seem to be diametrically opposite to Sandel’s ideal model. Religion and race issues are taboo, out-of-bound topics that are largely excluded from the realm of public discourse, because of our experience of racial riots and other reasons. However speech has the power of releasing pressure and clearing the air between parties, and exclusion of speech that is based on religious viewpoints seem not only ironically inimical to the spirit of liberalism and democracy, but also detrimental to the future stability and vibrancy of society. The Rawlsian concept of public reason as applied to public discourse, where every citizen may only bring to the table of public discourse reasons that people of different moral or political backgrounds could accept, is not only unrealistic, but undesirable. People embody and espouse the values that their particular culture, race and religion (or lack thereof) imbue in them, and to require them to set that aside in public debate is a tall order indeed and detrimental to the standard of public deliberation. Erasing such values from the public sphere impoverishes public debate, and breeds discontent amongst a citizenry whose particular viewpoints find no platform to be aired.

gazing into the abyss
July 16, 2010, 6:20 pm
Filed under: the arts | Tags: , ,

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bored me was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why – I couldn’t put my finger on it. The only thing that calmed me was the satisfying sound of ice being dropped into a glass of J&B.

Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire – meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

American Psycho

Holding up a mirror to society and making it take a cold hard look at what it has become and unmasking the spiritual decay that widespread materialism and wealth breeds in a particular era and place  is a well-trodden literary path, with authors like Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, Wolfe in The Bonfire of Vanities and Yates in Revolutionary Road criticising the zeitgeist of the times and places they live in through their art. However while  Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho does not have the equivalent style and craft in writing as the other greats have, it strikes much closer, and much more uncomfortably, to the heart of the modern reader born in the capitalistic, MTV-fuelled 1990s. Ellis unveils the disturbing spiritual emptiness and malaise that grows surreptitiously under the garish veneer of wealth and “culture” in our modern age.

When I read fiction there is usually a barrier that exists between me and the events in the book, that I am conscious of and allows me to assume a level of detachment. The artificiality of fiction is apparent and I am conscious of it. However Ellis’s American Psycho has a degree of realism that is distinctly disquieting and disturbing, for its fiction uncomfortably mirrors our reality.

The protagonist is Patrick Bateman, a high-flying Wall Street executive living the “high” life. He is obscenely rich, lives in a posh apartment, wears the most expensive branded clothing, eats and drinks at all the fine dining establishments and socialises with people of high social class. Bateman seems to be the embodiment of the American Dream of social mobility and economic prosperity. Except for the fact that he is also a psychopath. He lures women to his appartment, where he rapes and murders them in countless twisted ways and engages in taboo acts like necrophilia and cannibalism. He randomly murders the homeless, all the while berating them about how they should work their own way out of poverty and how it is their fault they are in the situation they are in. Underneath the Armani suit, healthy tan and immaculately coiffed hair is an unfeeling, unfettered and inhuman psychopath who delights in engaging in the most depraved acts, without remorse and limits. He is like Dorian Gray, leading a life of opulence and physical perfection but moral corruption and sexual depravity lay buried under his wealth and physical beauty.

Despite Bateman’s apparent refinement and sophistication, his veneer of culture and class is slowly eroded as the novel progresses. Bateman’s life revolves around TV talk shows, obsessing over which brand of mineral water to drink, dolling out detailed fashion advice to all and sundry, endless iterations of “power lunches” at posh restaurants where nothing ever meaningful is ever said, trips to the video rental shop for explicit videos, maintaining a tan and working out at a private gym in order to attract women to bed. Bateman kills, tortures and rape methodically without flinching, but obsesses and feels truly awed by a well-designed and expensive name card that his friend owns. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion brands and clothing, and identifies people by their clothing, by naming the brands of each item of their clothing from head to toe, yet his obsession stops at the surface for he identifies clothing only by their brands and has no interests in the difference in fabrics and colours, and other finer and more substantial details, and he scarely has any interest in the personalities and character of the people that hide under the threads. Bateman’s inadequate existence seems sympomatic of living in the 1990s, where life has been reduced into consumption, superficiality and mass media, at the expense of substance, culture and true emotions.

Bateman is a sad example of what modern life has transformed humans into. He lives in an age where people are identified chiefly by the brands and price tags of their clothing, social gatherings exist only in form, conversation has degenerated into ramblings about TV talk shows and the rules of dressing up, and mass media and consumption has run rampant over good sense and culture. In order to plug the spiritual void, banality and even immorality of modern living, Bateman turns to sublimating his unused energies and unworked mind on the grotesque and immoral. He is reduced into a murdering, raping caveman in a suit, for his darker and untamed primative energies grow in the void and are expressed in an exceedingly destructive manner. The audiovisual overload that modern life brings has numbed and blinded him to what is right and the truly important and valuable things in life. Bateman treats people like nameless and faceless interchangeable objects, which is exactly what the commodifiying tendencies of capitalism surreptitiously teaches people to believe, and indeed the people in the novel are portrayed like such objects for they espouse the same empty materialistic values and have the same materialistic interests in clothing, money, consumption and power. What is even more scary and pathetic about Bateman is that he is self-conscious of his depravity and emptiness, but he seems unable to stop himself. There are moments in the novel where he is lucidly self-aware and even engages in self-criticism, yet he is stuck in this emotional and psychological gridlock. If Bateman is meant to be a representative of the psyche of the modern man, the modern man is a hopeless case.

Apart from his sadistic streak, Bateman is scarcely a gross caricature, for I believe many of his quirks and obsessions are found in varying degree in almost all of us. While I am sure most of us do not engage in murder and other crimes, I believe that there is a little bit of Bateman in all of us. We engage in sublimating activites to cope with the general emptiness and banality of modern life. Office executives sign up for various courses and activities outside of work, in order to unearth suitable hobbies to be interested in. The younger internet generation spend countless hours on facebook and other “social media”, posting banal messages in the hope of producing some measure of any human interaction and eagerly reading the latest posts on the most minute details of the lives of others in order to generate interest and excitement. Girls gossip about the minutest developments in the lives of others and talk about what to wear and where to buy what to wear. We have dozens of brands and variations for each product on the market, without any compensating practical benefit. Singaporeans obsess over eating and shopping, doing these activities with almost religious fervour and regularity over the weekends and after work in order to escape their daily existence, only to flock back to boring old work during the weekdays where they spend most of their waking hours.

The discomfort from reading American Psycho comes not just from the graphic depiction of murder and sex, but more importantly making the reader want to read more about the explicit gore and depraved sexual acts that the protagonist engages in. Ellis’s artistic masterstroke lies in making the reader a voyeur first, before making him conscious that he is a participant in and product of the very malaise that infects the characters in the book, as well as everyone in this age of rampant consumerism and materialism, through injecting numerous equally sickening episodes where Bateman’s sick acts are graphically and exhaustively described, with its many variations and changes. In doing so Ellis makes a very discomforting statement about how even the reader is part of this spiritual decay. For every moment I agreed with Bateman’s taste in clothing or food, or felt a pulling urge to read more about Bateman’s sordid acts, I felt myself get an inch closer to identifying myself with the empty values that the characters espouse, as a product of the debased culture of our modern era. As I became gradually conscious of Ellis’s craft as I read the book, I kept thinking of how salient Nietzsche’s famous words in Beyond Good and Evil were: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”As I got more appalled bythe characters in the novel, I also became more disgusted with myself and the age that I find myself in.

As a whole, it is interesting to note that in terms of plot movement, nothing much actually happens in American Psycho. The characters of the book are essentially involved in continuous and endless cycles of meetings, clubbing and power lunches and social dinners, interrupted markedly by Bateman’s sadomasochistic killings and depraved sexual acts. This reflects the inanity of modern living; it seems that despite the opulence and wealth, we have degenerated into our primal selves, obsessing over pleasures of the flesh, always asking for more and more, and living lives of superficial variety and spiritual emptiness. We have not truly progressed over the years for the progress was only in economic terms, and the lack of progress in the novel seems to suggest that society is unable to extricate itself from this mess.

For all his sadistic crimes, Bateman was never caught and persecuted, and the book ends with yet another routine and bland social gathering between Bateman and his oblivious friends at a pub. Nobody ever discovers his hideous wrongs, and perhaps nobody ever cares. The dirt disappears under the rug, and there is no justice. Society remains the same, mindlessly preoccupied with flashy brand names and empty hedonistic pursuits. Ellis does not explicitly moralise, but he seems to suggest that the moral cancer has reached its terminal stage, for nothing redemptive ever occurs in the novel and in fact Bateman was acutely conscious about his inability to normalise himself through a meaningful relationship with his girlfriend. The book ends with the image of a sign at the bar stating “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT”, an ironic reminder of the inescapable plight of the novel’s damned. The scariest thing is that we as readers might not be just starring into the abyss.

July 13, 2010, 4:33 pm
Filed under: diary

I like what this person said in his speech:

“Now, some of you may have heard that when you are young, you are idealistic, when you are old you are realistic. Now this is the kind of rubbish that is used by those who have lost their ideals or have sold their ideals for self-interests. Each should not wither one’s ideals or convictions. If anything, it should only consolidate and make it more resolute. If age has anything to do with it, it is only by way of expression and application of those ideals and convitions, having the benefit of a youthful experiences. And a life without convictions, without idealism is a mere meaningless existence and I am sure most of you will agree that as human beings we are worth of a life much more meaningful than just that. Thank you.”