Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Obedience, Ideality and Institution

"him who disobeyes/ Mee disobeyes"
Milton

Institutions are normally studied as part of "social reality" and should, indeed, be approached as constitutive of that "reality". It is in institution that power is experienced immediately; they are that through which subjects of power are immediately taken with stuff. (Intuition, we will recall, is that through which objects of knowledge are immediately given to us.)

But, as I've suggested before, the idea that social life is "real" is an illusion. Society is not an objective reality; it's a subjective ideality. It is not independent of the material reality that is given to us through intuition, to be sure. But society is simply not real.

We understand the material reality. We obey the social ideality. We should not try to understand "the social". We should learn to obey it.

(Kafka would back me up on this.)

This is why I think poetry is so important. It is as important to politics as philosophy is to science. It is the art of imagining the ideality, just as philosophy is the art of imagining the reality. After all, it's one thing to know what is real; it is quite another to imagine it. In imagination we become aware of the possibilities within the real and the necessities within the ideal. That's why the pangrammatical supplement of "understanding reality" is "obeying ideality". The ideal is simply not something one understands. Or rather, to understand an ideal is simply to obey. There's nothing more to see. Likewise, to "obey reality" is, simply, to understand. That's all it's asking you to do.

Institutions, I will agree with you, are in a lousy state these days. (There's something rotten in the State, as ever.) But we break our hearts trying to understand them. We have only our obedience to work with.

This does not mean that we should do as we are told. Institutions do not "tell us what to do". They determine the immediate rightness of actions. And there are always greater and lesser institutions. Civil disobedience, we must remember, is based on the idea that an act of dissent obeys a higher law.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Whenever someone feels that "real life" is somewhere else than where they are, that means that they recognize the "institutionality" of where they are, but no the "institutionality" of the elsewhere that they see as real.

For example, soldiers in Vietnam would talk about when they returned to "the real world." At the same time, many people in that "real world" saw their lives as fake, and the soldiers' lives as real.

Poetry, with its own history of saying "la vraie vie est ailleurs," becomes a site for identiying such boundaries.