Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Feline Philosophy, Anarchy, and Art

"Of all God's creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat." - Mark Twain

A side-effect of hanging around Occupy is that one winds up having to explain patiently to people that having a penchant for breaking things and wearing clothes you found on the bargain rack at Hot Topic does not make you an anarchist.  Sometimes you have to explain that to people who call themselves anarchists.  I don't look like I know anything about it, apparently.  I am middle-aged, chose to accord punk a decent burial rather than take up necrophilia,  and have a job, more or less, as an educator.   I vote, among my other peculiar habits, and my clothing comes in other colors than black.  That's all right; I reject the notion that political and philosophical ideas require membership in a subculture.  I also reject the idea that it requires a certain set of lifestyle choices, ideological catechisms, or a reading list.  Although I do habitually think about the systemic consequences of my personal decisions and I love a reading list, those are voluntary choices on my part.  (See what I did there?)  In other words....don't tell me what to do.

Let's start with a fundamental attitude.  Deep down in my bones, I believe that all power must justify itself to those it would exert influence over, rather than the other way around.  The power to pass laws or enforce them, to allocate resources or use them up, is always conditional and open to question; no other state of affairs is acceptable, or even possible except through manipulation, coercion and failure of the imagination.  When you put it that way, it sounds strangely like the Declaration of Independence ("....Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed")  and therefore ought to have the stamp of the hoariest true-blue American sentiment about it.  And yet in practice that fundamental world-view tends to bother people.  I have been told more than once in indignant tones that I have no respect for authority; I can only agree cheerfully, which seems to upset people even more.  I do not have respect for authority.  I barely recognize authority as a concept, except in the specific narrow academic sense of an authoritative source (and I'm well aware of how subject to debate that is). My compliance is never to be assumed, and my respect beyond that which I accord to all living beings as a matter of fundamental ethics has to be earned.  I do respect integrity, knowledge and logical sense, and will amiably ask that they be demonstrated before I put my full trust in a person or institution; I will less amiably point out when they have been breached.  This makes me a rebel, apparently, and very upsetting. 

Really, I'm no different from a cat, except that I talk more.  Cats are inherently anti-authoritarian.

So are artists, a species of which I am a member, cultivar writer.   While it's true you will occasionally find an artist espousing some authoritarian philosophy or another, they always mean it for other people.  (Nobody said an artist can't be a hypocrite.  We are like other mortals that way).  I never met a creative person though who took authority seriously as applied to herself.  That is because real art requires freedom and is governed by constraints the artist understands to be arbitrary even when she believes in them passionately, with the same total conviction that a six year old will lend to the rules of a game she and her friends just made up on the spot.  Even reality is bendable in spots.

Don't get the idea that just because I think rules are the product of fallible human minds it means I also think there shouldn't be any.  That kind of person always believes that there's such a thing as ultimate truth in human affairs, and that he or she knows what it is.  What I do think is that, acknowledging that rules are often arbitrary (a word with roots in the concept of rendering judgment), they are also functional in that they provide a container, a vessel for human interactions.  They can be useful, but they must also be subject to criticism and revision on the basis of how functional they really are, and that extends to all levels, the philosophical, the social, and the practical; local, national, and global.  This is also the business of the philosophical or theoretical arms of social justice movements:  feminism, anti-racism, queer activism, disabilities activism, etc.  That is not a coincidence.  As tiresome as that can sometimes be....like a four year old asking constantly "why? why? why do we do things this way?  why don't we do them another way?" it is essential.  All true and valuable change begins with a question.

Question authority.


  1. Indeed!

    I recall showing up at an action in a long raincoat - not a slicker, but a proper coat - because, well, it was raining. Someone looked at me and said: "you don't dress like an activist" to which I replied "What is an activist supposed to dress like?"