225. Suspending Words

Within David Runciman’s rapidly swirling, but nonetheless breezy, work of political science, How Democracy Ends is an ethical anxiety, and hope, that he has explored in at least one earlier work on American politics, but that emerges with a force and appeal that feels more at home in a tradition of continental philosophy. In part, this is because the idea comes into focus in his account of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”:

Arendt argued that twentieth-century democracy had a form of mindlessness built into it. The creation of modern democracy required the construction of a large administrative apparatus that operates mechanically, according to its own rules and regulations. In this system, technical expertise gets prioritized over human values. Ancient democracy was different. It was real people power. The great danger of modern democracy is that it gets attached from meaningful human input and acquires an artificial life of its own. Human beings still make the key decisions, but they do so without creative insight. They go through the motions. Or they lash out on impulse.

But in part, there is something that Runciman would like to formulate that exceeds his reading of Arendt, that he comes nearer to formulating some forty pages later, as he recalls the danger of the over-cautious tightrope walk that modern democracy often performs, when it is not recklessly sleepwalking (the dichotomy is the same):

Tightrope walking can be a creative act. The 2008 documentary film Man on Wire reconstructs the story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the late summer of 1974. Petit nicknamed his escapade ‘le Coup’—it was organized in secret and carried out with a small group of collaborators, who helped him break into the buildings overnight and rig up the equipment he needed. Petit walked from tower to tower more than 400 meters eight times. An astonished crowd gathered below and Petit later said he could hear their murmuring and cheers. Seen now, there is something haunting about what Petit did. Part of the poignancy derives from the fact that the twin towers are no longer there. Yet it also comes from the spontaneity of the act itself. Petit’s coup was neither cautious nor careless. It was a piece of genuine self-expression.

The context is politics, but Runciman’s subject is ethics—but it is ethics under the auspices, in the mode of, something like aesthetics: “a piece of genuine self-expression” belongs, though it would sound flaccid and airless given its overexposure, to a review of a work of poetry, even a novel. Something similar happens in the earlier account of Arendt, when Runciman describes the need to make decisions with “creative insight.”

By resorting to the expressions, Runciman urges a continuity between the realms of the ethical, the aesthetic, and the political; he locates, perhaps, a point upon which the three converge—or, more accurately, from which the three diverge, as they enter into the market, the political arena, and the contingencies of daily action. The “spontaneity” to which he gestures is undefined; it might be thought of with Wordsworth in mind, but that does more to muddy the already muddied waters of what Wordsworth himself meant as the term; with a Kantian reading, eccentric as it might be, we can take the word to mean a self’s capacity to bring forth representations from itself, to exercise self-conscious judgment; that reading is not hard to reconcile with Arendt’s inheritance and interests, and if judgment is extended to the thought of a self-conscious determination of one’s own ends, it is also suitable to Petit’s act.

It is possible, then, to pursue Runciman’s notions philosophically; as indeed, it is possible to pursue the notion of self-expression theologically (as Catholic theologian Karl Rahner has done); in either case, however, the terms are not pitched as jargon, but remain metaphorically alive, susceptible to analysis in excess of what the philosophers or theologians offer. They lead elsewhere, to a sense of self, to the participation of the self in a creation, in judgment, in ethical action, and pace Runciman, in politics. Though muted, “insight” might be thought to be close kin to the words; likewise, though monotonously blaring, “ecstasy.” They cluster around religion and philosophy alike, but the true glimpses that philosophers and theologians afford of either are not owing to definition or explanation, as much as to the sense that the words are, in the greatest philosophical or theological texts, being themselves animated with what they describe—by that leap of self, that movement of mind into novel perception, or, more simply, by genuine creativity.

Creative insight is perhaps rare enough that it ought to be appreciated wherever it can be encountered. At the same time, the encounter with creative insight, spontaneity and genuine self-expression, might all be felt to communicate their own experience, to lend themselves to a witness, reader, viewer, or listener. To put it that way suggests that the matter is hedonistic and self-serving. Runciman orients us towards the political health that spontaneous, genuine, creative insights sustain; he suggests that in a democracy especially, the recognition of such insights, the appreciation of their value, and, ideally, the capacity to experience them oneself, are essential. Even as I write them, the terms sound stale, co-opted, coercive: they are the jargon of banking advertisements, of technology consultants, of niche firms peddling ideas. It’s not the case that the marketplace can never have an idea, but it is probably not a marketplace of real ideas, and anyway, if spontaneous creativity abounded as much as the consultants promise, then it ought, suggests Runciman erupt in art and politics, as well as in money-making; art and politics ought, moreover, to be valued as invaluable fields where true creativity could be studied, rather than being subordinated to the promise of private enterprise, as if it could achieve what they cannot.

As Runciman intimates, spontaneity and creative insight do not so much have inherent or instrumental value, as represent, condition, coincide with the emergence of value into the world (the Eucharistic debates of  the sixteenth-century offer a range of choices that is not entirely beside the point, representing as they do the ultimate transcendent intersection of creator and creativity, the incarnation representing self-expression in its most paradoxical or ingrown form); the alternative is to accept, pursue, or (what most nearly resembles genuine creativity but is dangerously opposed to it) to seize and herald the value already established and being offered up, served reheated, again. Everyone needs to do that to live, admittedly; creativity, though, is something else; criticism, seizing the value emergent in creativity, differs in that it seeks to encounter and assess the emergence itself, guards warily against what is not creativity; hence criticism is not limited to the aesthetic, but can be found to thrive in the study of politics, theology, history, philosophy, ideas.

The form in which creativity happens, or the form that occasions creativity—whether it is in a work of literature that gets within its judgment the condition of its judgment, whether it is a judgment about the possible, the actual, or the conditions of the possible, whether it narrates or sings—is variable and derives from forces deeper than predilection, and it is often the case in the study of anything, that an encounter with creativity will be only one of other pleasures; for those to whom it is overwhelmingly irresistible, fascinating, ballasting and dizzying in turn, the prospect of criticism is a viscerally appealing challenge, and the great successes of criticism themselves seem creative, the genuinely new, spontaneous insight into what creativity emerges and how in a work; but even scholars who yearn for fuller knowledge often do so with the hope that it makes new occasions of creativity visible (Anthony Grafton seems just thus sort), and their work serves as reminders, as the work of a literary critic cannot, that creativity is neither conditioned by accessibility nor a guarantor of enduring appeal; it is both more and less easy to want to study what everyone already accepts as being valuable, that acceptance itself a barrier to recognition.

Probably because I am fascinated above all by those spontaneous judgments that contain their own grounds and conditions—and, perhaps because such judgments perforce must concern the possible, rather than the actual, and be bounded by the actual conditions of somatic experience—I’ve found the prospect of literary criticism distinctly appealing, and inspiring when carried out by the greatest critics, such as Empson, Eliot, Ricks, Davie, or Hill, in whose writings the genuine creative impulse (owing to some extent to all but one of their being poets) stirs, in recognition and admiration of the creative insight that they elucidate and help others to experience. Though some would demur at the lofty tone I’ve set here, and others would skeptically probe the sentimentality lurking in the yearning for spontaneity in modern politics, they would, I think, all be content with the notion that the faculty of creativity is not distinctly expressed in the aesthetic realm, and that the creativity found in that realm is as impoverished by an imposed dissociation from the political and ethical as the attempts at creativity in the political and ethical would be by sequestration from the aesthetic.

“Creativity,” now washed out by posters and logos and slogans, has suffered too much attrition as a word to be adequate to the experience and activity I’m trying to describe. “Spontaneity,” I think, is better, joining as it does activity and passivity and determinism and willing. Neither is ideal for the peculiar effacement self and other, individual and circumstance, judgment and occasion, by a value that seems to justify its being what it is, and that, in so justifying, reconciles beyond itself.


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