This special issue of Critical Inquiry is dedicated to Arnold I. Davidson, the journal’s executive editor from 1989 to 2012 and currently its European editor. In these capacities, he played a crucial role in setting the journal’s intellectual agenda for more than two decades. Davidson is sui generis, and it seems folly to try to sum him up in a few paragraphs. Still, readers may reasonably expect some explanation for what might otherwise seem a heterogeneous collection of essays.
In “Spiritual Exercises, Improvisation, and Moral Perfectionism,” Davidson builds a connection between the kind of improvisation to be found in the practice of jazz by Sonny Rollins and the philosophical tradition of “spiritual exercises,” in which he is personally interested. He finds the same kind of “concern for the self” on both sides. Davidson shows how improvisation—as soon as it ceases to be interpreted as the mere performance of something that already exists—is a practice of the self in which the self is involved in its capacity to form and transform itself. It is no longer as much an aesthetic as it is an ethic—or, to put it more correctly, it is an aesthetic insofar as a real aesthetic is itself an ethic. Such cancellation of the border between ethic and aesthetic is exactly what may be heard in Foucault’s late motto regarding an “aesthetics of existence.” In order to make sense, then, of the shift made in the sense of ethic, it is helpful to remember the contrast drawn by Foucault between “a morality that was essentially a search for a personal ethics” and “a morality as obedience to a system of rules.” In this regard, it seems that improvisation provides us with a paradigm of what it is to find—and invent—one’s way, for improvising is not just about obeying a given rule. Improvisation makes obvious the irreducibility of performance, its reliance on the importation of something not included in the rules. To be sure, improvisation, from this point of view, has a revealing function, since its irreducibility pertains to some extent to every performance. What makes improvisation specific, however, is that in its case performance is not an additional moment, but rather the thing itself. Improvisation is all about what happens in performance. By definition it cannot be anticipated—though this does not always preclude specific expectations—or it would not count as improvisation.
The balance is the oldest element of the iconography of justice, both secular and divine. First encountered in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it resurfaces in Persian religious texts, in the Old and New Testament, and in the Koran. The association between justice and the balance was further emblematized by the Greek goddesses Dike and Themis, and to a lesser extent by Roman Iustitia. It was eventually stabilized in the Renaissance in the now traditional image of justice with balance, blindfolds, and sword. Cesare Ripa’s sixteenth-century emblem book presented the balance as “a metaphor for justice, which sees that each man receives that which is due him, no more and no less.” The balance adorns courthouses throughout the world; its emblematic role hinges on its purported ability to weigh accurately the opposing arguments, evidence, and interests pitting plaintiffs against defendants. It also embodies the paradigmatic image of criminal law at the center of this essay: the balancing of crime and punishment. There is a gap, however, between the balance’s iconographic success and the quality of its performance as an instrument of justice.
In what follows, I will argue for the distinctiveness of this form of understanding, which I will for the sake of convenience call the coup d'oeil because its elements and practices crystallized under that name circa 1750–1850, in association with the new profession of military engineer geographers. There are anticipations of at least some aspects of this species of understanding in earlier periods (for example, in thirteenth-century angelology), and there are also other associated practices in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (for example, the invention of the panorama and the rise of Humboldtian science). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the coup d'oeil as a form of understanding, once strongly linked to mathematical rigor in proofs and mathematical exactitude in techniques such as land surveying, came to be opposed to these values, not only in debates over the foundations of mathematics, but also at the more mundane level of new practices of heavy-duty calculation that spread with the use of the first reliable calculating machines after circa 1900. It is these latter practices that converted algorithms from the most transparent to the most opaque operations in mathematics and made Nozick's opposition of AI-generated rules to surveyability thinkable.
In what follows I shall examine a dimension of ethics that Stanley Cavell names moral perfectionism, gathering under this label a host of different authors and philosophical lines, with Ludwig Wittgenstein holding the center stage. This dimension of ethics focuses on the mobility and transformation of the self, and in this light it is interesting to compare this approach with virtue ethics, given their shared emphasis on the self, its peculiar status, and the prospect of education. The idea of self-transformation informs Wittgenstein’s and Cavell’s philosophies in a number of ways. In particular, we can say that in Cavell’s perspective one’s comfort and happiness are gained piecemeal and repeatedly—as comedies vividly teach us—through a process which transforms the shameful circumstances of life into occasions for interest and pleasure. What constitutes a source of insecurity and disgrace is constantly and repeatedly transformed into a source of pleasure, exchange, and company. The confrontation with virtue ethics allows us to specify the peculiarity of perfectionist self-transformation. Some versions of virtue ethics, such as the one elaborated by John McDowell, share with moral perfectionism a firm antitheoretical approach which traces ethics back to the moral life—exemplified on the one hand by one’s individual sensibility and personal orientation and on the other by life with other people—that shapes one’s sensibility and orientation in an overall culture. The peculiarity and specificity of the tradition of moral perfectionism can be best appreciated against the background of a shared approach to the moral life.
On Wednesday, 21 July 1773, Eliphalet Pearson and Theodore Parsons, two graduating students from Harvard College, publicly disputed whether the enslavement of Africans was compatible with natural law. What kind of training, what kind of exercises in self-formation, had to be in place for the three Bostonian twenty-one-year-olds to speak and write as they did? How did they use modern and classical idioms to address the immorality of slavery, each tacking between oral and written form—in the disputation and the poetic verse? The British Somerset ruling on 22 June 1772 had dealt slavery a blow in England and beyond: the judge, Lord Mansfield, determined that there was no common law precedent for slavery in England or Wales. Would American revolutionary fervor embrace abolition, or were those colonial references to chains and masters just metaphors?
For decades I have been ruminating on the relationship between morphology and history. Recently, I realized the inadequacy of my approach to that issue; I started a new chain of reflections, which I would like to offer to Arnold, in a sign of gratitude for his friendship and generosity.
Queer theory has had something to say about sex, but until recently it has had almost nothing to say about love. Love has seemed too intimately bound up with institutions and discourses of the “normal,” too deeply embedded in standard narratives of romance, to be available for “queering.” Whereas sex, as queers know very well, is easy to stigmatize (or to celebrate) as kinky, transgressive, or perverse, love is typically represented as lying at the heart of normal life, thoroughly at home in conventional social structures such as marriage and the nuclear family. Indeed, one of love’s most important social functions nowadays is to promote the acceptability of customary forms of personal life by endowing them with affective value and imbuing them with a look and feel of intrinsic normality.
Can we count on ourselves, and if so, how? On the day he moved to Walden Pond—it was 4 July, the anniversary of US independence—Henry David Thoreau decided that he would build his house with his own hands and live alone in the woods: I “earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” Utopia? After two years, Thoreau returned to civilization, but the spirit of Walden lived on in the many acts of civil disobedience—a concept Thoreau invented—that marked the fight for civil rights in the US in the 1960s, as well as recent grassroots movements in Europe, the US, and many parts of the world. Disobedience is based on the moral principle of self-reliance, which encourages individuals to refuse the common, accepted law and to base themselves instead on their own conviction that the law is unjust and unsuitable. This moral principle says that I can and I must oppose the common law and isolate myself from society if I do not recognize myself in it.
I met Arnold I. Davidson in July 2007 at the conference “Ruptures: Music, Philosophy, Science, and Modernity,” co-organized by Davidson and the composer Martin Brody and held at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin. Davidson’s lecture, “Exemplarity and the Aesthetics of Difference: From Michel Foucault to Cecil Taylor,” particularly the sections on my former mentors, Muhal Richard Abrams and Steve Lacy, had a particularly strong, even emotional impact on me. My talk, “Living with Creative Machines: A Permanent Improvisation,” drew from my ongoing work on live, completely improvised dialogue with interactive virtual-improvisor computer programs.
It is remarkable that the problem of the historical, social, and political constitution of a specific form of subjectivity as the correlate—both the necessary support and the inevitable consequence—of the emergence, in the nineteenth century, of a science of sexuality is not explicitly inscribed at the heart of Foucault’s project since its beginning. The main objective of The Will to Know is rather to describe the constitution and principal features of the modern apparatus (dispositif) of sexuality. Therefore, in the following years, a shift takes place in Foucault’s work that cannot be reduced solely to a chronological change of focus. Foucault’s “Greco-Latin ‘trip’” brings about a more fundamental transformation—starting from 1980, his history of sexuality focuses on “the forms of subjectivation and the practices of the self.” More precisely, the problem of the formation of scientia sexualis is replaced by the question of “how the modern individual could experience himself as a subject of a ‘sexuality,’” a question that requires, Foucault argues, a genealogical study of the ways in which “Western man had been brought to recognize himself as a subject of desire”
Mizoguchi Kenji (1898–1956) is by general consensus one of the great directors of classical Japanese cinema. Yet he is less endearing than his friend Yasujirō Ozu, less exciting than his rival Akira Kurosawa; his films lack the novelistic depth of a Late Spring (dir. Ozu, 1949) or the excitement of a Yojimbo (dir. Kurosawa, 1961). “I believe it is much more important,” Mizoguchi once said, “to show the film’s subject—the author’s thought—than to tell a story.” This notion of “showing thought” implies a fairly broad definition of intellection. It recurs thereby to perennially unsettled issues of nondiscursive rationality, and hence of the availability of movies to theoretical, and more specifically academic, discourse. Mizoguchi’s films are melodramas, but they avoid the genre’s usual techniques of focalization (flashback, point of view, close up and so on) and do not prioritize identification with characters. Standard exegetical strategies in terms of character and action can therefore seem inapt. Avowedly interested in perceptual psychology, psychosomatics, and synaesthesia, Mizoguchi wanted his shots to be “hypnotic,” a response inimical to the language of problem solving and moral evaluation so common in mainstream film studies. This quality makes his films particularly interesting both in themselves and as historiographic specimens: anything so obdurate is apt to reveal background conditions of intelligibility at a given historical juncture.
In recent years, Arnold Davidson has developed a passion for the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993). Rabbi Soloveitchik had the dual distinction of having been both one of the most renowned talmudists Talmudists of the twentieth century and one of the most significant Jewish philosophers of that period—though this latter recognition became significantly apparent posthumously. In his lifetime, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s primary reputation was that of a preeminent teacher of Talmud based in the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York. But he was also a community rabbi in Boston, where he founded a Jewish day school, and he commuted between the two cities for four decades. Interest in his thought among academic scholars has spiked enormously since his passing. While Jewish history has known great masters of Halakhah (Jewish law) and great masters of philosophy, it is no stretch to affirm that halakhic prowess on Soloveitchik’s level had not been combined with his level of philosophical achievement since Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century. It is true that, because many great rabbinic figures in both medieval and modern times opposed the study of general culture, only a small number of halakhic giants even bothered to make the dual effort that Rabbi Soloveitchik made. Indeed, Soloveitchik he broke with his own rabbinic family’s tradition by venturing into non-Jewish and non-Orthodox thought. But while the pool of competitors was is thus fairly small, his achievement is undeniable.
"I believe we’re here mainly to have a discussion, which means that I shouldn’t be talking at all; but, after all, I suppose that in order for you to be able to exercise your right to pose questions, which will be a right to examine and a right to critique, it’s necessary that I expose myself to your blows. So I’m going to present some slightly untidy remarks, on the basis of which I hope you yourselves will have an occasion to express your opinions."