Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Underlying Axioms

a contrapuntal essay

Several times since the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal emerged, a public figure has compared dog fighting to deer hunting, suggesting the two activities aren't that different. This comparison usually elicits mainstream outrage, as hunters (and others) talk about how different the two activities are. At my sports blog, I've sometimes expressed the belief that the two activities are similar, which sometimes elicits reasoned objections (and sometimes angry objections).

The reason I find the activities similar is because the same axiom underlies both activities: humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure. Deer hunters can point out the differences between the acts (often focusing on the differing levels of suffering, pain, cruelty, and motive), but I'm stuck on the axiom. Once you accept the axiom that humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure, if you separate deer hunting from dog fighting, you are arguing about degrees. And once you start acting on that axiom, you are also going to have excesses of degree following the same axiom.

The same problem is true for many types of violence, I suppose. Once you accept the axiom that war is sometimes justified and necessary, all it takes to wage the war you want to wage is to convince people that the particular war is justified and necessary. John Howard Yoder has pointed out that when other theologians speak generally negatively about warfare, there is a palpable sense of relief from the audience when the theologian acknowledges that sometimes, in very rare circumstances, because of exceptional circumstances, war is sometimes justified and necessary. Once you accept that premise, even if you try limit that justification/necessity with extremely specific rules, with a very narrow, specific, and limited application of Just War Theory, you're going to have people justifying war, and feeling they can do so within your own standards.

Sometimes ideological opponents recognize in each other the acceptance of differing axioms, and thus argue with the knowledge of irreconcilable differences. Sometimes ideological opponents argue about the degrees, ignoring or failing to understand the axioms. Either way, opponents often fail to understand how the other side can possibly see things so differently.

Is this discussion at all relevant in how we approach art and literature? Perhaps, though you may see this as a strain. When we come to respect, admire, even revere a particular artist, we may start to give him/her the benefit of the doubt. What if I watched Australia without the knowledge that Baz Luhrmann directed it? What if I watched Sour Grapes without the knowledge that Larry David made it? I doubt I would have patience with A Maggot if John Fowles weren't the author. But once I accept that an artist knows what he/she is up to, I'm willing to try and see what he/she is doing. It is a stretch, but once I've accepted the premise John Fowles is a great novelist, I'm willing to read any novel he writes as the work of a great novelist (I might ask my friend RK: could you ever dislike a Woody Allen movie even if you did?).

Perhaps less of a stretch is how readers might accept the axioms of a particular literary theory, then be able to always apply that theory to any work. It's a bit of a joke that if you read with Psychoanalytical Theory, everything becomes a phallic symbol. But if you accept any literary theory's axioms, you can start to see everything according to the axiom.

Just as significant to the discussion is the rejection of a particular literary theory. If you reject a particular theory (say, Queer Theory), convinced it has nothing relevant to offer you, you may never see anything that calls for it. If you refuse to see any homoeroticism between Ishmael and Queequeg, then of course you will not see it. If you reject an axiom, you may never see anything useful in it, and may never see a reason to apply it. I try to see something useful in almost any literary theory, while at the same time not adhering strictly to any one approach.

But that's for literature--as a vegetarian and pacifist, clearly I'm willing to embrace (or reject) an axiom that underlies and limits my behaviors and ethical decisions.

Well, contrapuntal, but shitty.

1 comment:

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