Tuesday 17 May 2011

Emancipation is the art of prolonging a beautiful life

One of the longest-running debates within Critical Realism concerns the role of absence. In "Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom" Bhaskar introduced a new 'turn' in Critical Realism, introducing 'Dialectical Critical Realism' which contextualised original critical realism within a dialectical process which, Bhaskar argues, was driven by determinate (i.e. concrete and identifiable) absence.

Dialectic is a very hard book, and much discussion has surrounded the topic, much of it sceptical. I count myself among the sceptics. The real problem is to be able to point to anything 'real' about absence without drawing on rather crass examples (the absence of rains leading to famine, for example; the absence of a treaty leading to genocide, etc). This is in contrast to original critical realism, which pointed to the real phenomena in the world and in asking how scientific knowledge about them might be possible, posited mechanisms as an explanation. Bhaskar's argument is that mechanisms are stratified and tensed in history, and that processes operate within those time structures driven by the absences at any particular time point: the injustice that persists, the things that can't be explained, and so on. That may be fair enough, but he then goes on to say that absences are real, in the same way that mechanisms are real, which for many is a step too far. Then it gets complicated: are absences the drivers of mechanisms, or mechanisms the drivers of absences? Are absences in the mind or 'out there'? Bhaskar (I think) is saying the latter.

I've been thinking about all this in the context of music. Withholding the root of a chord is a common musical technique for prolonging musical expression: Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde is the classic example, but 16th century polyphony is similar. Absenting the root suspends expectation, withholds a resolution or finality, creates more tension, gives direction, moves towards something, raises expectations. Because of the absence, the music keeps driving forwards. But if we think like this, the issue is neither absence nor mechanism, but prolongation: another word for viability.

We can go a bit further here. Because a distributed cognition approach to music would then start to identify absence within the mechanisms of regulation between individual viability and the world 'out there'. In this sense, absence may well be 'out there'. Moreover, it being 'out there' is a fundamental component to the viability of each of us. One might almost say that we rely on there being real absences in the world: without them, we wouldn't exist. 

However, this is then to privilege mechanisms over absence. The mechanism detects the absence. But what drives the mechanism? Answer: absence! This seems very paradoxical! Is there progress?

That of course is a leading question (quite literally!). Bhaskar's view on dialectic is that there is an emancipatory force in the world driven by absence ("the pulse of freedom"). It is the role of philosophy to identify and unpick determinate absences, and that this is an emancipatory project. I find the latent utopianism here hard to stomach. Absence may well be real, but it is wrapped up in processes of prolongation and viability. If there is emancipation to be had, I think it lies in the possibility of an individuals finding a way through the absences of the world which harmonise with their own viability.

Like the art of prolonging a beautiful piece of music, emancipation is the art of prolonging a beautiful life.

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