Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Lesson in Spotting Rhetoric

            I started this conversation last week by discussing Plato's anti-rhetoric stance.  Ostensibly I was writing about Phaedrus, but I mostly used it as a jumping-off point.  To be clear, in the Phaedrus, his position does seem more complicated than in some other dialogues like Gorgias.  His message in Phaedrus seems to be that he himself is having a hard time determining whether philosophy can ever be done without any rhetoric at all, while imploring us all to be very, very careful about how we allow rhetoric into our minds and lives.
            An easy way to learn to spot rhetoric is to look at the pro-/anti- propaganda for something that feels obvious.  (Er...one hopes.)  For example, take a look at some of the posters supporting and opposing women's suffrage.
            The message of the first three is fairly simple:  women are supposed to be doing their work in the home, and giving them the right to vote will up-end that.  Suddenly, men will be saddled with all the baby feedings and the cleaning and so on.  I must admit, I rather like the second one; a pity having the right to vote doesn't mean I get to sit around eating chocolate and playing cards with my friends all the time!

            One of the things that feels obvious about these now — and that I think this next one particularly well illustrates — is that now the images feel grotesque in their literal role reversal.  The crude, almost oafish simplicity of the reversal makes you uncomfortable when you realize how natural the reverse of the images felt to the audience.  In other words, it felt totally appropriate to the anti-women's suffrage movement to simply place one of the women in the other room doing the washing, while there were three men sitting around playing cards.  (Presumably drinking beer rather than eating chocolate.  Beer if very masculine.)  I particularly enjoy "Husband's Working Hours 3 A.M. to 12 P.M."  Because those actually are most mothers' working hours.

            The message of all three is:  don't mess with the natural order of things.  If you do, women may very well take their revenge for all those years of oppression.

            This last one is interesting to me because of how complicated it is.  I think it's a valid point how many roles in society women were considered fit to serve in, while the vote was still denied to them.  And I like that "Mother" is included with "Doctor or Teacher."  On the other hand, the list of things "a Man may have been, & yet not lose the Vote" seems problematic.  "Unfit for Service"???  Seriously?  Because a guy is born with a congenital birth defect, or he's been injured in adulthood, his right to vote seemed questionable to these folks?
            And the one that says "Proprietor of white Slaves"...that one's interesting because it links up to a moral panic about "white slavery" — i.e., the kidnapping and forced prostitution of white women.  As it turns out, the panic was largely overwrought; there really weren't hundreds of women a year being forcibly dragged into prostitution.  The situation was tragic, but in a much different way.  There were hundreds, if not thousands, of young women moving to cities with no idea how to conduct themselves in a romantic or sexual relationship in a supposedly Brave New World.  Their parents were terrified a Jew or an Italian would seduce them into slavery, which was a red herring; what might have been useful was an actual education for young women on how to handle modern relationships.  But of course, their parents had no more knowledge about such things than they did.
            The scare over white slavery seems to have contributed to women getting the vote.  Suffragettes — many of them being mothers — were understandably scared about what they were hearing about their daughters in the cities.  They believed that getting the vote would empower them to put issues concerning sexual exploitation on the dockets of politicians.  It's interesting that a hysteria surrounding an only sort-of-real problem is part of what led to women's suffrage.

            The funny thing about a lot of the pro-women's suffrage propaganda is that it appeals to the same norms that are held up in the anti-women's suffrage propaganda.  They proclaim:  women want to do nothing but clean and make babies.  It's just that, politics do actually impact how we do those things, so we should get a say in politics.  The first two below actually affirm the proper place of women, and what kinds of work we should expect from them.  The message seems to be:  don't worry.  It won't be that bad.  Women will still take care of your kids!
            Of course it is true that politics do impact things related to women's work — everything from the ingredients in laundry detergent to breastfeeding in public to gun control laws — but because most of us feel like the statement "WOMAN'S JOB IS THE HOME!" is out of joint with our current time, the appeal feels off.

            The image below alludes to the white slavery panic I mentioned above.  It also uses a great image of a central female figure.  Yes, she's pushing for the right to vote, and that may seem to question the normal division of labor according to gender.  On the other hand, the figure, which is called "Womanhood," resembles a goddess or statue of an abstracted value — Liberty, say, or Justice — which is an interesting strategy.  It doesn't follow the lead of the above propaganda, which says, "Don't worry!  Women really want to stay home and have babies!  They just also want to vote."  It also doesn't suggest a wholly new way of looking at women (which would seem inappropriate; as voting wasn't new, agitating for women's suffrage was hardly a radical notion).  Instead, it reminds people that there are other narratives/images/archetypes for women within the context of the history of the West.

            This last one is just delightful.  Because they've simply adopted the rhetoric of the anti-women's suffrage movement to create a parody.  It does a nice job of showing how you can use language to argue just about anything.  Which is, again, Socrates'/Plato's definition of rhetoric.
            My particular favorite is number four:  "Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms and drums."
            Abso-fuckin'-lutely.  I might add soccer in there.  Or would that qualify under uniforms?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Plato's "Phaedrus," Rhetoric, and a Dash of Russell Brand

            What comes to mind when you hear the word "rhetoric"?
            For me, it sounds dry.  It sounds like it should come prefaced by the word "empty" or "overblown".  I think, instantly, of politicians and talking heads.
            I am guessing the word calls up similarly dull images in the minds of others.  There are certainly good reasons for this; it is genuinely difficult for me to understand why much of what politicians and talking heads talk about has anything to do with my life.
            But here's the problem:  the term "rhetoric," somewhere along the line, took on negative tones, and so when we hear it, we always think it's the politicians arguing against our position that are using rhetoric.  Because of course, anything negative is most comfortably perceived as external.
            It's always the far-right blogger I'm reading who's using rhetoric (say it with a hiss to get it right).
            It's the white person arguing against the existence of white privilege that's using rhetoric.
            It's the bigoted Evangelical on Youtube who's arguing that homosexuals are going to hell that's using fear-mongering rhetoric.
            That nice, liberal Marxist, though?  Oh, no, that's just fucking true.  The pro-union workers?  Absolutely right on!  And Russell Brand?
            Certainly no rhetoric there.*
            You see my point?
            Two things might help when thinking about rhetoric, though.  One is, well, Youtube.  And as Simon Critchley mentions in his excellent summary and analysis of Phaedrus, Ted Talks.  If you have internet access (presumable, given the medium), chances are good that you are regularly inundated with rhetoric from celebrities, politicians, and talking heads you either strongly agree with, or are so far on the other side you get to enjoy the bliss of rage and self-righteousness.  Then, once every six months or so, you re-watch Steve Jobs' commencement speech or Brené Brown's Ted Talk on vulnerability to get you revved up a bit so you can stomach the nightmare of consumerism awhile longer.  Rhetoric is, whether we realize it or not, absolutely everywhere in the public sphere.
            A second thing that might help wrap one's head around rhetoric is to think of people with charisma.  Charisma tends to catch you off guard, because almost by definition, when a person has it, they sweep you up in their energy so thoroughly you get enmeshed in their ego.  It's a lovely experience — I'm a lady who likes the charmers — but, shockingly, doesn't often lead to lasting happiness and well-being.
            Rhetoric is one of the main foci in Plato's dialogue, Phaedrus.  And I say "one of the main foci" because the dialogue tends to sprawl a bit.  Enough so that several articles I've read now all say different things as far as what the dialogue is "about".  ("Aboutness" being a very, very important concept in a world full of so much information no one can rationally expect you to read much of anything first-hand.)  In the introduction to my translation, Robin Waterfield argues that Phaedrus is about education.  In the aforementioned NY Times article, Critchley argues that it is about both rhetoric and eros.  I know this might seem like an easy out, but I think all three are true, and that when you combine them you get philosophy itself, which is my nominee for the "about" category of Phaedrus.
            And that lovely experience I'm talking about — where you meet someone who talks good and talks fast and instantly convinces you that they are brilliant and that they will somehow grant you the privilege of being their best friend or lover? — that is exactly what Socrates is concerned about when he discusses rhetoric.  Not just in Phaedrus.  Plato/Socrates/somebody-or-other discusses rhetoric in Republic and Gorgias as well.  He worries about rhetoric a good deal because it can often be difficult to tell when someone is sliding from philosophy to rhetoric and back again.  In Gorgias and Republic, the contrast is unfortunately caricaturized.  Plato portrays the sophists/rhetoricians as men who believe in the value of being able to argue anyone into believing anything.  Men who actually come out and say it:  "my value is in convincing people of anything, whether true or not."
            But of course, you don't often meet someone who says that, do you?  And if you do, you probably run the other way.  Because it's fucking creepy.  But what about when you're talking to someone you really like because they just have this thing about them, and they say with just the right amount of agonized deliberation:  "You know, I used to think it sounded so crazy, too.  But then I realized I needed to be open-minded and hear out the arguments on both sides, and I realized that...and I mean, I hate to say this...but I realized that it really is possible that the Holocaust was just completely fabricated.  For example, there's the question of the gas chambers..."
            I have been in that exact conversation.  With a fabulously gorgeous and charming man who had read a lot of books and internet articles.  He'd probably never met even the extended family of anyone impacted by the Holocaust.  He lived far away from the locations of the concentration camps and ghettos (this was in Lisbon).  He had, quite literally, nothing to go on except the assurances of his state-financed education and the moral indignation of some of the people he met and floated his theories past.  Which, frankly, isn't a lot.  Hell, I really can't give you a great reason for my belief that humans walked on the moon.  He was questioning something he had just as little evidence to believe in.  I just so happened to have seen enough tattoos on wrinkled old arms, and talked to the ancient, quiet Jewish man who hung out at the coffee shop I worked at on Mercer Island, to never have had my doubts.
            My point here — and I want to make this very, very clear — is that to a certain extent this man I was talking to in Lisbon may have been doing philosophy in his initial questioning of the narrative of the Holocaust.  He began by asking questions.  He was saying, "Hey, wait.  Why am I supposed to believe this?  When I see absolutely no evidence for it around me?  And isn't there some evidence that state-financed information is often fallacious?"
            I chose the Holocaust because I want to make it almost grotesquely obvious how much the question of rhetoric matters.  It matters, and it can be hard to spot.  In this case, it only feels obvious if you, like me, believe that the Holocaust really happened.  It makes it easy for me to notice how starting with that opening — "You know, I used to think it sounded so crazy, too..." — is so disarming when used well.  The call to be open-minded.  The reluctance to accept the possibility (...and I mean, I hate to say this...), followed by evidence generated by invisible names of authority; so-and-so, who is a professor at such-and-such university, who did a something-or-other test on the concrete of the walls at Treblinka.  And so-and-so-number-two, who has probably been horribly persecuted in some way or other for exposing how the world is secretly run by a Jewish cabal.**
            The catch to all of this is that whether or not he was doing philosophy when he began asking these questions is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tell from an external view.  Because — and I truly believe this is Plato's primary concern in all of his various wonderings about rhetoric versus philosophy — the attitude of the questioner decides.  The attitude of the questioner decides because underneath the attitude are all the various human strengths and weaknesses — the racism virtually all white people struggle with; the bigotry all humans live with; the fear of displacement Westerners, and Europeans in particular, feel right now; the deep-seated mistrust we should probably all have of our state-funded educations — and the particular mix of those strengths and weaknesses will determine the course of the questioning.  Rhetoric is the thing the questioner will have to turn to almost immediately to shore up a position they were effectively brought to by their own prejudices.
            Philosophy is much, much harder to do, and much slower and more painful.  Philosophy, in this particular example, would be what happens when a person starts by questioning their state-funded education and what it says about something like the Holocaust, then realizes they have deeply personal reasons for wanting the Holocaust to have not happened.  It would be the beginning of consciousness of the fear under the questions.  And philosophy doesn't stop there.  It leads into what feels like an even more terrifying place where you realize there aren't easy answers; there may not even be answers at all.  There isn't a simple thing that any person of color can say to me that will make me feel safer about my position in the world.  There isn't a phrase or a concept that will make the chasm between me and them vanish, and there isn't a thing I can do to get rid of my paralyzing and useless white guilt.***
            This is a much more uncomfortable and much less workable position than to simply state emphatically, "The Holocaust did not happen."  It's even worse than simply stopping with "The Holocaust did happen."  Such a statement is an easy way-station for most of us.  And as easy as rhetoric is to get swept up in, philosophy is just as difficult to slog on with.
            Just for shits and giggles, my next post will actually just look at some comfortably glaring instances of rhetoric.  Propaganda for a cause that feels like an obvious ethical position at this point — for instance, women's suffrage — is a nice way to train the eye to spot these things.  Then maybe I could work up the courage to turn the same eye on some of my own weak spots.  Like...oh, I don't know...whether or not the obvious kyriarchy of the church really is compatible with all my smash--hierarchy ideals?

*  Of course, Marx, the unions, and Brand are all correct.
**  Sorry.  My ability to feign tolerance for discussions that skirt anti-Semitism only goes so far.
***  Just to be clear, it also isn't the job of any person of color to make me feel safer, or to make the chasm vanish.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Two Books

A photo posted by Terra Leigh Bell (@leighandharriet) on

            Two books, very different.  Though both were crafted replies to other writers.
            The first — first in chronology as well as psychic weight — is Beltenebros, or the Beautiful Obscure.  This is my first book of poetry, and it was released by Seattle's Babel/Salvage at the end of August.  Beltenebros is a (short) book-length poem.  It was written in direct response to Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha; I think of it as sort of "talking back" (albeit with a great deal of affection) to the novel(s).*

A photo posted by Terra Leigh Bell (@leighandharriet) on

            The second, though it got finished around the same time, is quite different.  It is a very small, handmade object.  Each page contains "memorabilia" from either Lemuel Gulliver's journeys in Jonathan Swift's 18th-century novel, or from my own journeys, or some of each.  It took much longer than I'd expected, but I have to say that I'm pleasantly surprised by how it turned out.  There are a couple of pictures in this post, but if you click through to my Instagram account, you can find images of all the pages.


            I wish I could remember more clearly.  Like most children, I did various art projects when I was little.  And I'm sure that, also like other children, some of my experiments prompted my mother and other grown-ups to say, with a mix of pride and puzzlement, "What is it?"
            I wish I could remember exactly how I felt about that question.  I suspect it doesn't bother kids as much as most adults worry it does.  I vaguely remember feeling pleasure.  Not because of their interest, but because, in realizing the adult didn't recognize what my picture was an image of, I could tell them whatever I wanted.  A dog could suddenly be claimed as a giraffe.  A tree could become a boat.
            I like the adult version much less.  Now people say, "What is it about?"
            In the last few months, each time I have told a person that my first book was published, or that I made a handmade book/art-ish object, I have heard the question, "What is it about?"
            I can think of two appropriate responses.  I could launch into a long analysis of all of the themes and shapes and recurring images and all the layered meanings in Beltenebros.  I could talk about memory and materialism and my highly clichéd but nonetheless thriving romance with the sea in the Gulliver's Travels book.  That's one way of responding that seems as least reasonable.
            Or I could shrug my shoulders and say, "I have no idea."  This seems most honest.
            But I am just as socially assimilated as the next schmuck, so I politely say something like, "It's an homage to Don Quixote/Gulliver's Travels."  Blatant relief sweeps across their face as they realize A) it's not sexual, and B) the fact that it is "about" books they haven't read lets them off the hook from having to feign interest.  They (equally politely) reply, "Oh, I haven't read it."

A photo posted by Terra Leigh Bell (@leighandharriet) on

            The reason I think all of this matters is simple:  I caught myself.  I caught myself being more proud of having had Beltenebros published than I was of finishing the handmade book.  And if I dig under that pride a bit, I realize that my pride in having a book published stems from a sense of validation.  Having someone — anyone — choose your poem or novel or essay collection to send off to a printer's and slap an ISBN on it feels like "someone" — that conveniently vague notion of the rational capitalist at the back of everything — has put their stamp of approval on my work.  Receiving that stamp of approval permits others to grant theirs as well.
            But...really???  Have you seen some of the  books to get published recently?  I know I'm showing some of my elitist colors here, but "getting published" (and the passivity of that phrase should probably bug you) says nothing of the artistic value of a, um...book.  What it tells you is something about its capitalist value; that Babel/Salvage and many, many publishing houses like it are so clearly labors of love, doesn't change that fact.
            For the time being, I'm not going after this so much as an attack on capitalism "out there," so to speak, as I am concerned about the ways capitalism and consumerism have clearly shaped my own mind.  I care deeply about human creativity, and any ideology that fucks with the underlying structures of our individual minds and the consciousness of our larger societies to such an extent that we value the approval of the market more highly than our own inner compass should disturb me.  It should disturb me often enough to actually do something about it.  Maybe I could start with being proud of having written the damned thing.


            As I mentioned in my last post, the move to Portland has been tumultuous, and I can't currently locate my copy of Don Q.  But in the next couple of weeks I should be able to put up a couple of posts that show some of what I did in working with Cervantes' text.  If you're curious, you can search for "quixote" in the upper left-hand corner to see a couple of short excerpts, as well as some of my thoughts on the novel and my process in general.
            As always, feel free to comment, and thanks for the patience in my transition to Portlandia!

* Today if you go to your local bookstore (my favorites being Elliott Bay in Seattle and Portland's Powell's on Hawthorne), you will find the single book Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I only think it worth mentioning that it was actually two separate books written by Cervantes because the two are quite different, and writing the second book probably contributed to Cervantes' decline in health.  He worked his ass off to get the book out partially because so many copycats had published spurious second volumes to his original, and he wanted to set the records straight.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


            That really, really sucked.  In fact, much, much more so than I'd anticipated.
            For those who may be reading who don't know me live and in person— and my stats insist that some folks in Germany and Russia just keep on trucking, so hello there — I just moved.  I had planned to write a big, long, self-important essay on personal transformation, and the necessity of occasionally injecting severe discomfort into one's life, and especially on the importance of women being financially self-sufficient.  I was going to write about how big of a deal it is to me to finally be living away from where I was born, raised, and have spent all of my 34 years on this earth.  I was going to write about the direction(s) I want to take in terms of both "career" (i.e., that awful thing capitalism forces me into) and writing (the thing I keep trying to cut away from capitalism, though I'm sure ineffectually).
            Specifically, I moved from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon.  Which, if you know the area, you probably realize isn't all that impressive.  But wait!  I would have moved somewhere more impressive if I could have found somewhere else that had absolutely everything I insisted on:
  • midwifery school
  • solid doula community
  • friendly (enough) relationship between natural birth and medical communities
  • artsy-friendly
  • craploads of yoga studios and options
  • queer-friendly  (I'm about as un-queer as they come myself, but my patience with homophobia and its ilk have deteriorated rapidly as I've aged.)
  • politically left
  • great massage school
  • decent community colleges that won't charge me an arm and a leg for being from out of state
I wasn't really being all that open-minded, was I?  This is perhaps a bit specific.  And of course it begs the question:  why leave Seattle?  Seattle has all of these things, in even greater abundance than Portland.

            Well, that was going to be my post.  Why leave Seattle?  Lots of reasons!  Let me tell you some!


            Instead, the move went less than smoothly.  First, I didn't check before I left — because who knew that an upper-class, over-educated white girl could ever NOT be able to find housing???? — but Portland's housing market is, to put it politely, fucked.  The vacancy rates are incredibly low, and the prices have skyrocketed so quickly that you can now rent a modern box/studio with that neon accent shit that developers love so much right now FOR $1500.  For your viewing pleasure, it will be lodged  (bizarrely) between beautiful, 100-year-old houses that were vacated by the black families we just forced out of the neighborhood.  Thank you, Dwell magazine, for your loathsome influence.  You have successfully convinced rich white people that their homes are a fashionable expression of their innate quirkiness and good taste.  Of themselves.  Also, you're damn good at whispering "simplicity," a gentle sigh of relief now that the heavy shackles of income restriction and human-centered architecture have been removed.  You're so good, no one notices that your rooms are actually designed for suicide.
            But the housing market really is bad in Portland.  Places were going within hours of being posted online.  I kept calling one place after another, minutes after it was posted, only to hear, "Yeah, sorry, I've already got three people in front of you."  Places were consistently being rented sight-unseen, which I couldn't bring myself to do.  And some of the really tiny, crappy places that I could have barely afforded just made me angry; I couldn't stomach $900 a month on a 290 sq. ft. studio, on the ground floor of a loud street.  And 99% of what I found that was genuinely affordable was, at minimum, a 45-minute walk from the nearest grocery store.  I don't have a car, so that freaked me out.
            So, if you thought Portland was the land of starving artists, it might be.  But these days they're starving for very different reasons than they were ten years ago.
            It got way worse, though I'd rather not go into the gory details; I talked to enough folks who were recent transplants to know my experiences were not isolated.  Suffice to say, I moved here officially at the end of August, but I will only be moving into my long-term place at the end of this month.
            But then — Glory be!  Stability!! — things should calm down.  I've obviously never been a really frequent poster, and my writing process insists on staying as slow as it ever was.  Also, I'm working on certification as both a birth and postpartum doula, as well as working full time, so I've got a lot on my plate.  Still, I look forward to getting back to philosophy and poetry once the dust has settled, and hopefully some posts on women's bodies, pregnancy, and childbirth will be forthcoming as well.  Lord knows I've got to do something with all the Heidegger and Ina May rattling around in my head.

Monday, September 29, 2014

5 Options for Artists that Aren't Really

Lists are popular.
“10 Best Pick-Up Lines Ever!”
8 Reasons Your Marriage is Already Failing!
5 Ways Parents Can Stop Insulting their Childless Friends!”
I am super into being popular, so I thought I’d create a list, too.  Well, actually, it’s just to get some things off my chest.  I am working on a post on vocation and profession, and I kept getting bogged down responding to all of the old men who, over the course of my life, have felt it incumbent upon them to offer me unsolicited life advice.  Honestly, though, these things still get said, both to me and to some of my artist friends.  Typically in a much more well-meaning way than they used to be offered, but without exception they come from folks who are not artists themselves.
So in the interests of clearing my throat before I get to my post on vocation, and because these points bring up REALLY important issues around capitalism, here are my 

5 Things Non-Artists Need to Stop Saying to Artists

1. Oh, you’re a poet!  Have you thought about being a professional writer?  Like, advertising copy, or journalism, or something?

So I’ve used poetry and writing as my examples, but the same goes for all art forms:  an actor doing TV commercials; a musician playing for a recording studio; a painter doing video game illustration.  The thing non-artists do not seem to get is that your passion, and the skill you acquire expressing that passion, are two separate things.  Using the skill you’ve acquired does not satisfy the passion.  Not one tiny bit.  If I do journalism — and I have, as it so happens — it is no closer to writing poetry or my own essays than is cleaning toilets (which I have also done, and found far easier on my creative side than the supposed creativity of paid writing).

Also, there’s money in journalism?  Are you fucking kidding me?

2. There are jobs for artists.  You could be a college professor!  (Or any type of teacher.  Acting, painting, photography, composition, etc.)

Actually, now that I think of it, this one has a similar problem to #1.  Namely, teaching is a completely different job.  It is not satisfying to creative urges to teach artistic skills when what you want to be doing is painting giant abstracted oil paintings inspired by Victorian novels.

Also — and this is important to the quality of our art, folks — as a professor, I would spend over half my time reading poetry written by 18- to 22-year-olds.  I know what I wrote between the ages of 18 and 22.  I promise you:  reading it would not make you a good artist, of any stripe.  So professors are forced into filling their heads with incredibly heartfelt drivel.
For another thing, in order to get a job at the college level, you have to be willing to move pretty much anywhere in the country.  So, you know, just don’t fall in love with anyone or ever, ever want to settle down and have a family.  (Seriously on this one.  I’ve known people who speak multiple languages, who’ve been moving around the country or the world for over ten years, trying to get tenure.)  Also, going along with that one, 76.4%.  That’s the percentage of professors, across all institutional types, that are adjunct and not tenured or tenure-track.  That means no guarantee of a job next year, and most likely no benefits, and now (and where are those insane tuitions going??!!) most are reported by a recent study to be living below the poverty line.
And finally…  There are no jobs!  Not even crappy ones in the middle of nowhere!  Our parents’ generation is holding onto their tenured jobs for dear life, and there has been such a massive explosion of 30- and 40-somethings with graduate degrees in the humanities that some of my professor friends have told me they are seeing upwards of 100 to 300 applications for every ONE job that comes available.

3. You're making excuses.  There are people out there living their dream.  You could be one of them!  You just gotta be committed!

You wanna know my dream?  It’s so, so simple:  permanent American expat, traveling from one gorgeous, fascinating place to another (Paris!  Lagos!  Kuala Lumpur!  Istanbul!), spending my days writing poetry and essays, painting with media I don't even know the names of, and my nights drinking with other fabulous expats and going to operas, ballets, musical performances, and art openings, and sleeping with so many gorgeous men I finally lose count in a blissed-out, orgasmic haze.  That’s all!  And you know what, the non-artists are right about one thing.  If I was more committed — say, committed enough to marry some rich prick who wanted a tall, blonde trophy — I could totally finance my dream.  So why am I so lazy?

4. Well, but look at [insert famous person with buckets of money]!  He/she certainly seems to have figured it out.

Okay, just for clarity’s sake:  Rick Steves is not an artist.  Neither is Heather Graham.  Neither is Mandy Moore, nor Dan Brown, nor Thomas Kinkade.  Neither are a hell of a lot of other people that Wikipedia will happily label “writer,” “actor,” or “artist.”  They are entertainers.  Pure and simple.  They make crap, so we can all stop thinking for a few minutes.  Nothing against not thinking.  I’m a regular meditator.  It’s just, if you’re going to try to turn your brain off, don’t call it art. Now, that being said, there are artists, across all disciplines, who to all appearances support themselves financially by making wicked art.  Tilda Swinton is a goddess.  Rose Wylie.  Philip Glass.  Arvo Pärt (be still my heart).  Lupita Nyong’o.  Michelle Ndegeocello.  Adrienne Rich.  Anna Netrebko (*sigh*).  Lang Lang.  They are out there.  But here’s the thing:  most had money at their back, and if not money, artistic parents.  No American ever wants to admit this to themselves, but the pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth is largely that.  And for the one in a billion artists who do manage to do that?  Can you not tell that I am far too much of a pessimist to be that one? Did you read the above article I linked to? Read it.

5. (In response to an artist voicing concern over balancing art with marriage and kids.)  Sure you can have it all!  Lots of artists have homes and families!

I saved this one for last because this is tough for me to address.  Not because I have a stance against it.  Lots of talented artists do purchase homes and have transportation and get married (and stay married!) and have kids who don’t hate them or kill people.  It’s not that it’s technically impossible.  It’s tough because how to balance art-making with family life is a legitimate problem for a lot of people. It's a question of priorities and sacrifice, and I find that generally, non-artists whip this one out way too casually.

When you have a child, you understand responsibility in a whole new way.  Your very identity gets changed.  But the problem is, it probably won’t be 100% changed.  So an artist may suddenly see their old, artistically active self as selfish and focused on petty things, and simultaneously resent their children for keeping them from their old selves.  As a woman, I tend to hear more about this from the perspective of moms rather than dads, but I can tell you:  there are some moms out there who both desperately want to hold their babies, and desperately want to throw them across the room and run off to somewhere, anywhere, where they can be their artist selves again.  Somewhere they can not be a mother anymore.
These are not “bad women.”  They are not necessarily bad mothers.  Any responsible adult can and should figure out how to deal with their own disappointment once they’ve brought a child into this world, and buck the fuck up.  Most (that I have seen, anyway) do just that.  But at what cost?  How many ways can a human be split?  And is it such a great thing?
  The major advantage I see to encouraging everyone to do everything is productivity.  Yes, my life would look much more impressive if I published books, made art, studied philosophy, and bought a house and had babies.  So?  Why the obsession with production?  Oh!  Right!  Capitalism!  I always forget.  Right, totally need to get on board with capitalism, and its fixation on making more and more, so we can consume more and more.  Return to Go.
And this is the meat of the matter.  Americans want to believe the aforementioned pieces of advice can work because we really, REALLY want to believe that capitalism can be done in such a way that it doesn’t hopelessly contort each and every soul it touches.  I am showing my so-far-left-I-don’t-know-where-the-leftists-went colors here, but yes, capitalism distorts and taints everything.  Everything.  And everyone.  This is why Beyoncé — whom I instinctively want to fall down and worship — is still a problem.  This is why we should never, ever indulge in regretful surprise when we hear what the pace and demands of capitalism do to creators (click here for one example out of thousands).  Americans want to believe that it is possible to be the most authentic version of themselves possible, within this system.  I assert that it is not.  It is not possible.I speak mainly as a poet here, but there is no way to slice the cake that doesn’t hurt me and my creativity.  The solution I have arrived at — and I make no claims that this is the best solution, only that it is no worse than any of the others — is to protect the space my creative urges come from as much as possible.  For me, this means never, ever placing responsibility for things like food and shelter on their very fragile shoulders.  (Huh.  My creative urges ended up with shoulders.  Metaphors are weird.)
I could go further and get all Žižekian, but as I mentioned earlier, this is mostly a throat-clearing exercise.  Of course, there are probably at least five more silly pieces of advice I could come up with, but these are the main ones that continue to re-assert themselves.  And there are real potential pitfalls to the option I’ve chosen.  For one thing, I think it’s awfully easy for folks like me who choose to (attempt to) keep their art and money as far from one another as possible to get awfully self-righteous (a particular talent of mine). We can fool ourselves into believing that somehow we manage to accomplish what everyone else fails at; namely, that we somehow stay free from capitalism’s dirty fingers.  We do not.  Also, there’s a scary psychological potential here, which is that if not one dime ever comes to me via my art, given that I have a psyche shaped by the belief that money is the primary marker of value, it’s often (read:  always) difficult to remember that I am in fact an artist. This one hurts, and it's a constant problem for me, but again, that's part of my point: there isn't a solution within capitalism. Which means that the solution is... (Raises eyebrows...) Yes...???

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Meno, and too little too soon?

            Commentators on Plato like to have a one-word "This is what X is about," where "X" is Phaedrus, Gorgias, Theaetetus, etc.  Granted, Plato generally does a good job of maintaining his focus within a piece (far better than I do, anyway), but once you combine the oversimplification of "Plato's Republic is about justice," with the problems and complexities of translation, the statements start to feel more and more meaningless.
            So:  Plato's Meno.  Wikipedia-the-all-knowing says it's about virtue.
            Firstly — and I will try to be brief, because this is something of a side note — the Meno is not about anything anyone in the Anglophone world would ever call "virtue."  I touched on it here, but virtue is an unfortunate translation of the Greek arête.  To give an idea of what an ancient Greek might have thought of when they heard the word arête, we need only ask Meno himself, as Socrates did:
SOCRATES:  But Meno, by the gods, what do you yourself say that virtue is?...
MENO:  It is not hard to tell you, Socrates.  First, if you want the virtue of a man, it is easy to say that a man's virtue consists of being able to manage public affairs and in so doing to benefit his friends and harm his enemies and to be careful that no harm comes to himself; if you want the virtue of a woman, it is not difficult to describe:  she must manage the home well, preserve its possessions, and be submissive to her husband.  (Meno, 71d-72a)
Meno goes on to talk about the virtue of a child, an elderly man, and a slave.
            While I will grant that we have another, less morally-tuned, use of the word "virtue" (we speak of "the virtues of diplomacy," "the virtues of sound urban planning," etc), for one thing, it's not a use you hear too often anymore.  And for another, it still wouldn't work in this context.  The "virtues of" use speaks as though virtues were benefits, or good things about the practices in question. Meno is clearly speaking not of practices, but of people, and the people are subjects acting out their arête; it is not something about them, the way their robes might have been blue.
            So from the first pages of the dialogue, the use of the word virtue to translate arête — when virtue, in my ears, sounds something like moral goodness or righteousness — seems dubious at best.
            Philip Vassallo in Philosophy Now* suggests that a better word might be "valor."  I would agree if arête only applied to men.  But as Meno himself demonstrates, it does not.  (While I may personally love the notion of a valorous housewife, it sounds too comic.  And a valorous slave, who would presumably demonstrate his or her valor by submitting to whatever work or punishments meted out to them with all appropriate resignation, sounds awful.)
            Another possible translation of arête is excellence, and I think this is decent.  It allows us the flexibility to use arête in a manner in line with what Meno — in this dialogue, the representative of the classic/Homeric understanding of social values — points towards:  the most perfect expression of carrying out one's life's work.  This also allows us to hear/read Meno's definitions of the arêtes/excellences/ways of excellence in a way that avoids reading him as a prefigure of Nietzsche, or as simply another Thrasymachus.
            Okay.  Side note over.
            Back to this question:  what is Plato's Meno about?
            And then this:  what responses present themselves?
            As for the first question, I do not think the dialogue centers on arête — no matter how we translate that word — at all.  The central questions (according to Terra Leigh), in the order in which they are discussed, are the following:
  • Can excellence be taught?
  • What is excellence?
  • Meno's paradox:  how can one search for what one does not know, as it will (presumably) be unrecognizable since you haven't yet found it or known it?
  • Is excellence a kind of knowledge?
  • Can excellence be taught? Part II
Each section dealing with these questions of course brings up many others (How do we learn?  Why do some kinds of knowledge seem to be "discovered," as though they had always been lying about somewhere in the recesses of our brains?), but these are the big umbrella topics.  In terms of sheer time spent on each, the question of "What is excellence/arête?" gets about eleven pages in my copy.  The question the dialogue opens with, however — "Can excellence/arête be taught?" — gets double that.
            Obviously it would behoove one to know what X is when discussing whether or not X is teach-able.  Socrates/Plato know this, and so spend a respectable amount of time discussing what the hell arête even is.  And Socrates' conclusion — that virtue may be more like a kind of divine inspiration that some lucky folk receive from the gods — whether ironic or not, is a way of circumventing the question of how to know what arête is.
            But my larger point is this:  Plato, here, seems primarily concerned with whether or not arête/human excellence can be taught.  He is trying to get at how to pass on individual qualities which will benefit both the individuals concerned and the larger society.
            When I first realized how much of his time he spends thinking about the teachability of excellence, initially I thought he was barking up the wrong tree.  Because Plato seems to think of teaching as what Socrates does:  one person, who has more wisdom, and another, who has less, conversing, while knowledge is either passed between them or "awoken" by the activity of dialogue.  While I think this can be a decent method for informational transfer, I do not think it works too well for moral transfer.  And when I say "moral," I don't mean something like "ethical behavior," or "knowledge of ethics."  I mean it in the old sense of character, temperament, or possibly even mood.  I mean something like the shape and texture of human persons or souls.  The shape and texture of a person — not some quantity of informational material — will determine what choices they make in life, and in a sense will determine how much or how little they achieve arête.  And the shape and texture of a person will be influenced and generated primarily by their entire environment, not some one individual.
            It may well be that Plato does believe, in writing the Meno, that if arête is teach-able, its teaching will happen in the kind of scenario he presents Socrates in.  I do not mean that Plato — or Socrates for that matter — believed that Socrates had a lot of really good information to pass on, kind of like knowledge of geometric theorems, and that teaching arête or hosion or dike or whatever would transpire the same way teaching Chvátal's Art Gallery Theorem would transpire.  Because of course, that isn't what Socrates is doing.  Still, Plato does seem to place a lot of faith in Socrates' methods, and I for one think they would do fuck-all for a society trying to teach its young arête or any number of moral sentiments.  In this particular dialogue, I get the distinct impression that Plato believes that if arête is teach-able, then Socrates' methods would be the ones to achieve that.
            One can ask "Can arête be taught?"  But while, in the Meno, Socrates does realize this begs the question, "What is arête/excellence?" he doesn't seem to realize it begs the question, "What is teaching?"  This is a central problem for Plato's entire project.
            Like so many of the dialogues, this one ends in aporia.  I.e., there isn't a satisfactory answer, unless you consider this satisfying:  "Can excellence be taught?"  "Umm...  I'm not sure.  I guess not...?"  But upon finishing Meno, and feeling frustrated because Plato's notion of what teaching excellence would look like, I suddenly realized something.  Plato himself accounted for the generation and shaping influence of environment in his later work, Republic.
            I'm not sure whether I will ever write a full blog post on Republic.  It's crazy long and I'm not exactly in love with it.  I think the most interesting aspect of it is its psychology, which is possibly the main point anyway, but it's hard to not read Republic as a political treatise since that is both how it is traditionally read and what is floating around on the surface and easy to catch.  Also, there are enough books and articles and probably now blog posts on it to make me feel less an intrepid explorer, and more an unpaid intern.
            But perhaps I can avoid the question of whether or not to write a blog post focusing exclusively on Republic by discussing it here.  In Republic — which most scholars agree to be a later dialogue than Meno — Plato argues that in order for an entire society to function well, and in order for all of the members to be as perfectly just and good as is possible, all of the various groups and parts of the system must accept their proper roles and perform them to the best of their ability.  While it could well be argued that such a proposal is a neat and tidy way of keeping the lower classes from getting too uppity and too big for their britches, so to speak, it is at the very least an acknowledgment that all humans live in an ecology of ethics and that if the ecosystem is sick, so will their individual systems (i.e., people) and sub-group systems.  And, in turn, if individual systems are sick, such persons cannot help but affect the entire system by pulling unduly in some areas, while going slack in others that need tension.
            I think it bears pointing out here that while Plato's central concern in Republic, which is justice or even righteousness, these can not be equated to what he is after in Meno.  Again, read any translation of Meno I've ever come across and arête will be translated virtue.  This may sound like "justice," but I do want to clarify that Plato is technically talking about the nurturance of two different qualities.  Just for accuracy's sake.
            Still, I would at least put excellence and justice in the category of moral character.  And in Republic, Plato seems to taken into account the ecology and complexity of influences on human development, and how systemic the influences upon the development of moral character are.  One may not be able to tell another person "How to be moral/good/just/pious/whatever" in the same way one could teach them to grow bacterial cultures or knit a blanket.  But if we can take into account the whole system in which humans grow, we may be at least able to have a meaningful conversation about whether or not arête can in fact be taught.

*  I have refrained from including the link above because I see that the article is now available to subscribers only (an honor which I cannot claim, as $32 comes dearly these days).  But if you would like to look at the delectable teaser, which I'm sure will lead you to locate an extra $32 in your budget this month**, you can see it here:  Aren't Philosophers Rich Enough Already Why Do They Need My $32?

**  I have recently discovered that, as a person who religiously keeps a budget and knows exactly how much I spend on everything every single month, I am part of a group constituting less than 10% of the American population.  Which is to say, if you are, as seems likely, part of the 90% of normal people, you could simply spend the $32 and it would probably come off just fine.***

***  I apologize (but not really, of course) for all the dependent clauses.  I have just finished yet another British murder mystery, and Albert Campion is loping through my head.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

All the various pieces are finished...

...and so now they begin to be assembled.

            Which is fitting, since my very first book of poetry will be published next month.  I truly did not intend to have my first little art book get finished around the same time as Beltenebros, or the Beautiful Obscure, but I confess to being the teensiest bit pleased.

So these top two — the elephant and camel postcards — are going to be the covers.  I picked them out of a collection of vintage-ish postcards I have, mostly because the map behind the animals is of India.  For those who don't already know, the theme of this little art book is roughly "Gulliver (and Terra Leigh's) Travels."  Places Mister Gulliver went, places I've gone, and the slight overlap between.

The one above I'm particularly proud of.  Mostly because it took more diligence than I normally display.  The paper itself is from the journal I kept while in Spain in 2006, and the journal entry to the left is an actual journal entry I wrote on May 19 of 2006 while sitting on my first real, live topless beach.  The journal entry to the right is from Lemuel Gulliver's retelling of how he began to learn the language of the Houyhnhnms.

And above, of course, we have Laputa, the floating island (i.e., England), hovering over Balnibarbi, threatening to block out the sun for the inhabitants below (i.e., Ireland).

And this is quite simply one of the most time-consuming projects I have ever undertaken, having mistakenly believed it would be "super quick and easy."  Not so.  Nonetheless, I am happy with the results.

Now comes the easy part!  Please, please dear God, let it be easy...

Friday, June 27, 2014

on Social Contract Theory, in which nothing is said of Plato

            In order to start my head working on the questions around social contract theory, I put it to several of the members of my philosophy group.  I asked some specific questions which, as first questions often do, led down some rabbit holes.  Most of the folks in my philosophy group are at the very least slightly opposed to the notion of government at all.  This is not an uncommon phenomenon amongst predominantly young, male, childless human beings, but I also don't want to knock it on those grounds alone.  The theme that kept coming to the surface was that "the" social contract (the exclusivity is a problem in itself) infringed upon freedoms to pursue one's desires.  This is the key word here:  desire.  It should also be noted that most of these young men are most decidedly not the kinds of anarchists you would worry about running around raping and pillaging.  While this is a common perception of anarchists, I can safely say that most of these young men are, frankly, some of the most trustworthy individuals you could meet.  They exemplify Brother Thomas's ethical anarchist, who I believe is borrowed from Robert Nozick.
            On the one hand, I take desire very seriously, because desire is not always and only an expression of "I want the candy bar."  Desire is also often an expression of "I don't want to give you my food because I'm hungry," "I want to have sex with the people I choose," or (for full dramatic feminist effect) "I don't want to have sex with you at all."  Even apparently frivolous desires — for example, let's take a child who is whining, "I want the candy bar" — have at their roots profound terrors and neediness.  The child in this instance, after millions of years of evolutionary programming, craves high-carbohydrate foods.  We all know this feeling; think of the last time you tried to stop shoveling cookies or potato chips into your face.  The prefrontal cortex and its worries about sexual attractiveness in the blip of modern life we find ourselves in has got nothing on the appetite.  So here's a kid, acting like the little animal that he is, that we all are, and we have the audacity to forget our own rampant appetites and declare his desire to be petty.  Or, to add another layer, we fail to note that the last time we were at the grocery store, his baby brother did get a candy bar when he asked for it, so now the terrified creature is checking to see if the importance of his nutritional requests still rate as highly as those of his chubby-cheeked usurper.  Again, we are the ones who minimize the importance of this desire.  We are the ones who fail to take it seriously.  Desire should always be taken seriously.*
            And this is just a child asking for a candy bar.  Never mind that critics of social contract theory are asking why they must have money they earned** taken from them to finance things they may very well not want to finance.  Myself, I would prefer my tax dollars not be used to kill children.  And yet, that's one place they go.  Many people may not even want to finance the building of roads, or other things most of us consider essential, specifically because the money was taken without their consent.  The point, for an anti-statist, is not necessarily the specific places tax dollars go, but the fact that they are taken without consent.
            But these are, frankly, the predictable responses to questions about social contract theory.  And the truth is, they get mired pretty quickly in discussions around that one word: consent.  Did I consent to this or not?  Is there such a thing as implicit consent?  How is consent obtained/arrived at?  Is it unethical for a group of humans to choose an action when even one member of the group dissents?
            The truth is, my eyes start to glaze over it when a conversation turns towards consent.  Consent, especially to Americans, is so bound up in notions of individualism and freedom as to make it nigh on impossible to have a conversation about it with any American (yes, even the supposedly free-thinking ones).  Consent means something far, far too simplistic and also tends to require that it be explicit.  I.e., I have to sign my name on a piece of paper in order for my demands to be taken seriously.  I have to say, "Yes, you can take that percentage of my income to finance things like welfare programs and road construction."  The other, nastier side to this coin, though, is that a person also has to explicitly say "No" in order for undesired sexual intimacy to be considered rape.  Once we put pressure on anyone in discussing consent, it quickly becomes obvious they would prefer to never even recognize the existence of implicit consent (or lack thereof).
            We are obsessed with this notion of consent because we believe in a fundamentally atomist conception of humans.  We genuinely think of ourselves as a bunch of Robinson fucking Crusoes, on our own little islands, engaging or not engaging in social and economic activities with other Robinson Crusoes.  We believe that we are individual, liberal (in the Enlightenment sense, not the current sense), rational creatures that, given the freedom to do so, will go around making the best decisions for ourselves while allowing others to do the same.
            Bull-fucking-shit.  In the words of the immortal Tyler Durden, "You are not special. You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We're all part of the same compost heap. We're all singing, all dancing crap of the world."
            So this is where I was stalled for quite some time.  There are the Enlightenment ideas of social contract theories, and these modern critiques of social contracts.  But the critiques are based in a notion of individualism and free will I don't subscribe to.  More egregiously, in my opinion, they keep you skating around on the surface.
            There are two fundamental problems I see with social contract theories.  The first is in Brother Thomas's aforementioned essay:  personification of the state.  (Note that he calls it "personation," but as this is a technical term for a type of voter fraud, I'm changing it slightly.)  The state, or as we tend to put it when being honest in our conversations about politics, "the government" is very much perceived as an individual with which we must contend.  We see this all the time in discussions of international conflict:  nations are discussed as though they were individuals.  "Iraq" and "Britain" and "the United States" and "China" all say and do things just as though they were real live people.  "They" form treaties.  "They" fight with each other.  The degree to which we do this is repeatedly demonstrated by the way minority ethnic groups are forever breaking off and insisting on having their own nation states.  I may not like the way Israel treats the Palestinians, but the Jews got something that the rest of us seem slow to acknowledge:  modern humans only respect a group of people as being culturally distinct and deserving of basic respect if they have a nation state they can point to as home.  The Kurds caught on long ago, but the Entente wouldn't let them have their own nation state after World War I because it didn't serve their (the Entente's) interests.  Luckily for the Kurds (and unluckily for the Arabs in Syria and northern Iraq), ISIL may very well create that new boundary for them.
            The most obvious examples of how this happens are of course the actual personifications of nations.  In the U.S., we have Uncle Sam.  In Britain there's John Bull, in France there's Marianne, and in Russia there's the slightly unoriginal Mother Russia.  But these images simply embody the psycho-social process that already occurred:  imagining countries to be individuals.
            This seems to be at the heart of social contract theory, and in fact teases out what I think is a certain ambivalence/confusion in social contracts.  Namely, who the hell is the contract with?  Sometimes we speak as though it is with our peers.  Sometimes as through it was with "the government."  When we speak in the latter form, we are employing this personification; as though "the government" were not simply a group of individuals employed by us to make our lives easier.  But we forget this.  We forget it when we let "the government" send people to jail for getting beat up by the cops.  I forget it when a cop issues a silly order for no reason other than that he likes to watch people obey him, and I have to fight my own impulse to do as he says.
            We forget it for good reason.  Seattle City Light, the monopoly with which we must do business in order to have electricity in our homes, recently got a gigantic pay bump approved after Seattleites pretty well made themselves heard in saying it should NOT pass.  It turns out that representative democracy combined with rampant capitalism and consumerism doesn't make for high levels of citizen invitation/involvement.  Hence, our alienation and propensity for talking about governments as though they were their own little personages.
            But while we may forget for good reason — and certainly the causes and problems listed above, along with a host of others, are not about to go away — it remains not the case that a nation state is a person.  It's not.  Did you notice that?  It's NOT.  So you can't very well have an agreement with "it" at all, because it isn't really an it.  This, as we all know, is the reason for that joyous experience of having one branch of the government — say, DSHS — tell you that yes, you will get to purchase groceries while unemployed, while another part — I don't know, let's say the Employment Security Department — declares that you now owe them back-money because you failed to cross a t.  If an individual person behaved so bizarrely, you'd wonder about their sanity.  My point is, nation states are not people, and social contract theories (or some versions told from some angles) depend upon this notion of personhood.
            But there is a second absurdity in social contract theories:  cartography.  I had a hard time getting my hands on this one until I realized something:  part of the reason social contract theory emerged was to find out what justified governing people at all, in lieu of divine right.  So the old school way was to say that God had granted a king some kind of special juju, and that was why he got to shoot you if he didn't like you.  Then some more progressive philosophers came along and tried to both explain why he got to shoot you, and try to create some basic constraints so that most of the time he couldn't (at least not and get away with it).  In other words, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau (but especially the latter two) were trying to come up with an explanation for the justice of government that wasn't a simple "might makes right."
            If we look at cartography, on a first, simple level there is the question of the arbitrariness of drawing a boundary and saying that one set of agreements ends there, and another begins with another group of people.  It's possible (and in fact likely) that the Europeans who initially generated their versions of the social contract — namely, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau — didn't see the contracts as ending at the boundaries between nations.  Because after all, Spain and France were both civilized, Christian nations, so most of the same rules applied.  That is, according to forward-thinking Europeans of the Enlightenment, the validity of government itself stemmed from its roots being in the consent of the governed.  This was true for all civilized people, i.e., all Europeans.
            Where these same rules did NOT apply was outside of Europe.  So a group of white dudes could go into the Americas, take over a bunch of land (we will look over for a moment the wholesale slaughter this entailed), even sign a treaty with a local tribe, and then when some new resource was discovered over on the tribe's land — the tribe's land which had been granted as their land by the contracts created by the white dudes themselves — the borders would simply be moved.
            So imagine, if you will, Land X, where social agreement Set X applied.  Say, property and wealth are patrilineal; the folks in Land X are English.  X=patrilineal.  Then there's Land Y, where social agreement Set Y applied.  In this example, property and wealth are matrilineal.  I happen to be thinking of the Sioux, but this is just for thought experiment's sake.  Y=matrilineal.  According to the very social contract philosophy conceived of by the white dudes and their ancestors, the very social contract theory they would insist is what makes them civilized, the set of agreements is formed by the people in that society, in that space.  The Sioux, in this example, have their way of doing things.  They've agreed on it.  Hell, they may even have a few anarchist dissenters who want to do the whole thing patrilineally.  But they've decided, as a group, within these boundaries arbitrarily drawn up for them by the white dudes, that for them, it's matrilineal.  Those patrilineal dissenters have tacitly agreed to matrilineal descent by living in these boundaries.  By using even one of the tribe's blankets to keep warm at night.  The validity of matrilineal descent is generated by the Sioux people themselves, again, according to the Europeans' own ideologies.  But now that the new resource has been discovered, suddenly Set X's rules spill into Land Y.
            I do realize that there's precedent for this.  It's called "conquering."  Except that the treatment of the Native Americans, along with millions of other people unfortunate enough to be colonized by Europeans, wasn't even good old fashioned conquering.  (In my example, it wasn't conquering.  There was also lots of conquering.)  When Europeans violated agreements and treaties and boundaries with the Native Americans, they were mocking their own social contract philosophy with every lie, every theft, every violated contract.
            "Well, we've found these borders don't work for us anymore, so we're going to move you into...  Wait, where are we moving them?  Oh, that's right!  The desert!"  Notice that:  "We're going to move you."  In other words, fuck all of our own proffered enlightenment thinking about the validity of government growing up out of the consent of the governed.  The Sioux may have consented to their own governance just fine.  But in truth, the validity of government comes down to one simple thing:  force.  Power.  Might makes right.  The very principle that thinkers like Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau were trying to take apart.
            This of course doesn't disprove the validity of all variations of social contract formation.  It's even possible that might does make right.  I mean, anything's possible, right?  My point is that the same folks who developed  theory that said might does NOT make right, that power was not the principle upon which government/governance was formed, ended by shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Well, I guess might does make right."  Might, and cartography.
            One could argue that they just didn't live out the philosophy the right way.  I get this line of reasoning.  I find myself using it with painful frequency whenever I hear about terrible human abuses within religious institutions.  It's a dance that compassionate Christians and Muslims know all too well:  "No, no!  The religion itself is about love and acceptance and community!  Not sin and death and judgment!  We swear!"  But as people of color throughout history have probably thought many a time to themselves, "You keep saying that white civilization and history aren't intrinsically oppressive, but if it always, always, always plays out that way..."

*  It should go without saying, but of course "taken seriously" does not equate to "gratified."

**  Just my little anti-capitalist side-note:  I'm not totally into this notion of "earning money."  Our entire economic system is so abstracted and inhuman, it's difficult for me to believe I should take it seriously in a concrete and human world.  Obviously, to some extent, I do take it seriously by participating.  But I'd just like to reserve the right to believe I'm participating in bullshit.