Friday, September 26, 2014

Intellectual Firmament: From Censorship to Attention

First, a note about teaching. Teaching undergraduates, especially teaching introductory classes or classes that fulfill general education requirements, often leads to a strange kind of double speak in which texts that are more "teachable," more appropriate to general audiences, become the basis to address other points raised by more difficult and demanding texts.

For several years now, off and on, I have taught Mill's On Liberty. One of the thing that interests me about the book is once you get past the "harm principle" familiar to readers of applied ethics textbooks everywhere, you actually get to some interesting stuff. I am referring to Mill's concern with "the tyranny of custom" with the general conformity that risks destroying individuality. (It would take a much longer blogpost, maybe even an essay, to tease out the tension between the basic rule and the general anxiety, a tension that could be summed up by the question "does conformity harm?") 

Returning to my initial point, however, one of the interesting thing about Mill is that despite his attention to general principles, he is actually quite attentive to the way in which power functions outside of rules. As Mill writes, “…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling…against the tendency for society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct…” One could say, with a nod to Foucault, that Mill is trying to at least cut off the head of the conception of power even if the image of the king and the law is replaced by an amorphous blob of society. Mill's break is an ambiguous one at best (I am not even addressing his colonialism and racism), but it has interesting effects. Take for example his take on censorship. 

"But though we do not now inflict so much evil on those who think differently from us, as it was formerly our custom to do, it may be that we do ourselves as much evil as ever by our treatment of them. Socrates was put to death, but the Socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination over the whole intellectual firmament. Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. With us, heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain, or even lose, ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought."

It is this passage that came to my mind as of late, provoked by two events. The first is Banned Books week as yearly social media event. One thing that the various listicles and Buzzfeed quizzes make clear is how absolutely ineffective such bans are, the lists include much required high school reading and bestsellers. Second, and perhaps more substantially, is the arrival of my copy of Yves Citton's Pour un écologie de l'attention in the mail, a book I look forward to reading (and most likely posting about here). At the core of such a book is the idea that the contemporary management of thought passes less through the imposing edicts of the censor than the seductions and diversions of attention. If, to paraphrase Foucault, "We must conceptualize the destruction of thought on the basis of the techniques of power that are contemporary with it," then it might be necessary to move beyond the idea of censorship to reflect on the destruction of attention. It is not a matter of getting rid of banned books week, but spending just as much as time focusing on the destruction of the conditions of attention. 

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