25 May 2011

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The artistic performance of a stage actor is definitely presented to the public by the actor in person; that of the screen actor, however, is presented by a camera, with a twofold consequence. The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole. Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance. The sequence of positional views which the editor composes from the material supplied him constitutes the completed film. It comprises certain factors of movement which are in reality those of the camera, not to mention special camera angles, close-ups, etc.... Also, the film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. 


Film: Abid 

Directed By: Pramod Pati

Origin: India, 1972

Duration: 5 minutes
Description: Unlike a cartoon film, which is a rapidly moving series of photographed drawings, in pixilation, a moving object is shot frame by frame, and then through clever editing made to appear in motion. By its nature, this movement is agile, energetic and unpredictable just like the pop art movement.

24 May 2011


The articulation of technology uncovers at least two trends: first, it harbors an impulse to duplicate, to create phantoms. Their numbers multiply as culture evolves. To see how: Alexander Graham Bell created the miracle that is a telephone. Space could no longer constrain verbal communication because the technology for the production of phantom sound was made possible.

However, by duplicating sound and enabling it to cut across continents, the telephone not only creates a double, but also enhances reality. This, I construe as the second trend. The two are closely tied since by (a) imitating the real, technology is also able to (b) transcend the real. It transcends by overcoming the limitations of reality, its finitude: where I cannot be present, now my web-camera video stream can. Instead of having to travel to the hypothetical planet Pandora to see the exotic and magical flora and fauna, I can visit the nearest multiplex and watch the movie Avatar. The gains: easy, convenient, is cheaper, no fear of being devoured by monstrous creatures, saves the energy costs of inter-planetary travel and avoids the sheer tediousness of health check-ups. What do we lose? This is more complicated.

There is a certain irony about the phantom. While it enhances an object, it also is one step removed from the object. An mp3 file of the crock sound of a frog or the colour print-out of a red apple are duplicates not of the object ‘frog’ or ‘apple’ but of one medium through which they reveal themselves. The phantom is, at the same time, both present and reminiscent of presence. It is presence in the sense that it duplicates one or a cluster of aspects of the object, its quality. But it is never able to present an object in its completeness, and is therefore only reminiscent of presence. There remains a gap between phantom presence and the object. The object is intrinsically withdrawn, shy even and therefore technology is only able to duplicate the medium. The being of the frog and the apple remain ever so elusive. Yet we do not know what is nature of that depth which makes the object what it is.

Technology however, seems to nurture the desire to replicate what is lost with the phantom. It seeks to become the object, and hopes that by enhancing the medium it can create a mirror universe of hyper-real objects: 2D cinema progresses into 3D where one can in fact experience rain drops in a theatre, pages in e-book reader can be turned with a swift move of the finger, just like in ‘real’ world. And hence the contours of what is ‘real’ and what is ‘virtual’ alter.

La gazza ladra (or The Thieving Magpie) by Emanuele Luzzati

Of Magpies et cetera

I ordered twelve books this month. Five have arrived. In the sequence of their arrival:
(a) Marshal McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage
(b) Graham Harman, Towards Speculative Realism
(c) Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy
(d) Steven Shaviro, Connected
(e) Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence

Meanwhile, I have been reading an assorted range of things, in bits and pieces. My (new) iPad is, most likely, the culprit. The sheer buoyancy experienced with the coming-into-being of portable (e-) libraries makes one heady.

§  In the metro train, on my way to the university, the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth sang:
All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

§  On an afternoon, post-lunch, my mother read to me Fakir Mohan Senapati’s classic Odia short story Rebati, from the collection Odia Galpamala. She had last read it as a student in high school but seemed have an accurate memory of it.

§  When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta. [Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle]

And so, I listened to Rossini’s piece on youtube and also discovered Emanuele Luzzati’s beautiful short film La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) which uses it as the background score.

§  Couldn’t help be amused when Don Quixote sought a ‘distinguished and full-sounding’ name for his horse, who then came to be called Rocinante.

§  Then there was Guy De Maupassant’s Two Friends: Monsieur Morissot and his fishing chum Monsieur Sauvage. And I ate fish today.

§  In the notes to Old Dog Sirko from The Magic Egg and Other Tales from Ukraine, read about the ‘bandura’, an Ukrainian stringed instrument somewhat like an asymmetrical mandolin, often used to play or accompany traditional folk songs.

§  My supervisor recently suggested Tolstoy’s Father Sergius. That happened as well. It ends without really ending though. The entire story is presented in terms of ‘was’, i.e. a narration of what has happened. In the last paragraph however, ‘is’ (the present tense) makes a guest appearance. One is startled and there is a sense of incompleteness.

08 August 2010

Indian Political Thought: A Reader

Editors: Aakash Singh, Silika Mohapatra
(London & New York: Routledge, 2010).

It is a comprehensive introduction, tracing the development of the discipline and offering a clear presentation of the most influential literature in the field, bringing together contributions by outstanding and well-known academics on contemporary Indian political thought. The Reader weaves together relevant works from the humanities & social sciences — sociology, anthropology, law, history, philosophy, feminist and postcolonial theory — which shape the nature of political theorization in India today. Themes both unique to the Indian political milieu as well as of universal significance are reflected upon, including tradition, secularism, communalism, modernity, feminism, justice and human rights.

In our time of globalization, people in the West are increasingly looking beyond the limits of the West for insights and teachings. It is very important and fascinating to find out what is happening today in India in terms of political philosophy. This Reader is timely and very much needed as there is simply no comparable text available...it is in fact a 'who's who' in contemporary Indian political thought.
Fred Dallmayr

A significant attempt to construct a foundational text for contemporary Indian political thought, this volume meets a deeply felt need.
Shashi Tharoor

28 December 2009

Thirty-one pieces

On a translucent
unraveled afternoon
The shadow of a man
at the trampoline bar
Wrote thirty-one pieces
of quadrangle verse
And stuck them on
the insipid grey walls
Of the colour of
stale nocturnal flowers
And the aroma
of crisp washed fabric
Soaked in pale yellow
tambourine strokes
Like fresh, half-burnt
newspaper squares 

04 July 2009

Ode to an unknown day of the week

A boat

Came along

On an obscure day of the week

Some say it was a Sunday

For the translucent scent

Of white lilies

Yet others can’t remember

They meet at the boxers’ enclave

Sifting yellow calendars of oil paintings

Old ladies peep in

Through the limestone windows

For a pinch of gossip

A crack in the wall

Desperate for a story to tell

But it evades

Mind plays

02 July 2009

Amethyst Battles


The horizon

Of inescapable stupor

Sparkled with noise

Maddening cries of sea gulls

They obsessively hover

Pecking at water weeds


Sky daubs their racket

Voices fade, rise in circles

Soaking mauve strokes

A chuckle

01 July 2009

My Name is Red

'My dear master, explain red to somebody who has never known red.’

‘If we touched it with the tip of a finger, it would feel like something between iron and copper. If we took it into our palm, it would burn. If it were a flower, it would smell like a daisy, not a red rose.’

My Name is Red

29 June 2009

When a cannonball nudged the moon

A cannonball nudged the moon

Powdered silver rust floats orphaned, astray

And it does not rain

They talk about it in hushed tones

Waiting for a turquoise night

But the dust envelops

Only a robot survives

Perhaps also a rocket launcher

Feeding on bread crumbs

Its greasy limbs, restless

Serenaded by a lost somebody

Anticipating a thunder storm

Then, drum rolls

Dust soar, evaporates

A faint melancholy

A colourless rain

A crimson sky


28 June 2009

The Subject of Being

“…the question that has always been asked and is still being asked today, the ever-puzzling question ‘What is being’ amounts to this: ‘What is primary being?’...”

By formulating the question “What is being” in terms of “What is primary being” Aristotle takes a significant turn in bringing the “this” or the concrete (for e.g. a particular man) to the centre — because, for him, “primary being” cannot be abstract; but must in fact be the more particular and the concrete. In contrast, the movement towards secondary being would be towards the more general or the universal. For e.g., we include a particular man in the species called ‘man’ and the species itself in its turn is included in the genus called ‘animal’. These (man, animal), then, are secondary substances. The particular man, however, is Aristotle’s ground, the object of his investigation of ousia or primary being.

Aristotle’s first step towards the understanding of the meaning of being is via the ten categories which he considers as all-exhaustive in understanding the nature of things. These categories are: [1] What (Substance) – ‘Man, a horse’, [2] How large (Quantity) – ‘Two cubits long’, [3] What sort of thing (Quality) – ‘White, grammatical’, [4] Related to what (Relation) – ‘Double, greater’, [5] Where (Place) – ‘In the market place, In the Lyceum’, [6] When (Time) – ‘Yesterday, last year’, [7] What attitude (Posture/Position) – ‘Is lying, sitting’, [8] How circumstanced (State or Condition) – ‘Is shod, is armed’, [9] How active, what doing (Action) – ‘Cuts, burns’, [10] How passive, what suffering (Affection) – ‘Is cut, is burnt’ (Aristotle: Categories).

An overview of the categorial formulation illustrates that in understanding the meaning of being, Aristotle poses virtually all possible interrogatives – ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘where’, ‘when’ – and yet, it is remarkable that, he conspicuously abandons the ‘who’.

Even though Aristotle is driven towards concretion in both (a) asking the question “What is being” in terms of “What is primary being”, and (b) in offering an exhaustive categorial determination of all things in the world, he seems to fall short of the step that would yield fuller concretion. In fact, it is implausible to hold that any claims to the concretion of being can bypass or underestimate the ‘who’ of the question of being.

The question of meaning of Being cannot be isolated from the one who interrogates. In the act of asking the question: ‘What is being?’ Aristotle seems to gloss over the fact that Being is an issue for the one who asks that question. To lay it out in another way, in merely keeping to the ontical-categorial framework, Aristotle devalues the ontological priority of the question.

It is to address this skew that Heidegger’s Dasein steps into the picture. In asking the question of meaning of Being, rather than simply ‘What is Being’, Heidegger creates the need for Dasein itself and retrieves the quest for being. Dasein is that ‘being which is concerned in its being about its being’ (Heidegger: Being and Time). Da is a German word referring to place, though it also has a temporal aspect to it – ‘there/here, at this time’. Sein, on the other hand means ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’. This renders Dasein a meaning of ‘existing-there-or-here-then’. The essence of Dasein lies in its existence and not in its substance.

In his ontological framework laid out in Categories, with great emphasis, Aristotle attempts to distinguish substance from subject and yet his subject appears most substance-like, without any subjectivity. Aristotle’s main complaint against his predecessors is the absence of logical clarity of terms in their systems, but he himself doesn’t clarify what he means by a ‘subject’ and how it is to be properly distinguished from a substance, even in situations which appear to demand an explicit articulation. It is interesting that Aristotle uses multiple instances of ‘a man’ to illustrate his discussion of being in Categories, Physics and Metaphysics. But he uses it as a mere substantive ‘man’ and not as a subjective ‘man’. A particular entity like a man, the locus of primary being for Aristotle could satisfactorily be replaced by a particular table or a clay pot and is therefore dramatically different from the Dasein of Heidegger. This is because even though Dasein can be conceived of as merely ontical like a clay pot, the fact that it has the possibility to be concerned with whether its being is merely ontical (or not) is an issue for it, is certainly ontological in character.

For Aristotle what is most characteristic of substance is the fact that although it remains, notwithstanding, numerically one and the same, it is capable of being the recipient of contrary qualifications. He claims:
There is a sense in which material passes away and comes into being, and there is a sense in which it does not. As that in which a thing is, the material does in its own right suffer destruction (for that which is destroyed is in it, namely the deprivation), but as what is by way of potency, it does not in its own right suffer destruction, but is necessarily indestructible and ungeneratable (Aristotle: Physics).
In the Physics he says, further:
Necessarily everything concordant comes into being from what is discordant, and the discordant from what is concordant, and the concordant is transformed by destruction into the discordant and this is not any random one but one that is opposite (Aristotle: Physics).
Therefore the movement between actuality and potentiality, in other words— change — is seen by Aristotle as that which is the most distinctive trait of a primary being (Aristotle: Categories). In spite of the fact that even by the end of Physics Aristotle continues to grapple with whether ‘the thinghood of the thing is the form or what underlies it’ (Aristotle. Physics), there is a seeming emphasis on the possibility of ‘what a thing can become’, namely, its form. That the substance of a thing is its form is a claim that is both accepted and rejected in Metaphysics. In Chapter 17 of Metaphysics one encounters “a new beginning” where form and matter, which were so far elements, are radically transformed into principles. The primary being of a thing then becomes for Aristotle its nature – the inherent impulse or power to develop and change into ‘what is’.
Although some features of objects are not their primary being, those that are primary being are natural and are established by nature; hence the nature of a thing is clearly its primary being, and it is, not an element, but a principle (Aristotle: Metaphysics).

The question of ‘what is primary being’ then shifts from what its substance is to what its function or final cause is. Natural phenomena, for Aristotle, are characterized by their purposeful movement toward becoming themselves, and that is the ‘form’. Form is thus not a pre-existing static ‘idea’ into which the world shapes itself. Rather, form is motion, the motion of natural phenomena from potentiality to actuality.
* This is an edited version of the original article.

28 September 2008

A Silhouette

A limestone wind
He smiled and said
Rising beyond
The scarlet skies

The grass struggled
Slashed and torn
A naked canvas
Whispered along

Running with a wind
Dodging shadows
Only a silhouette
I could see

White brush strokes
Over a purple kite
Dust flew into
A hundred eyes

14 September 2008

A Burnt Tree

He did not take the staircase

For fear that the thread of piano keys

Would play the breaking news

A song with but one sharp note

Knocking the doors with glass frame

People whisper; they might see

A fire alarm could go off

Who was smoking? They will ask

Would his innocence convince them

Especially on an afternoon like this

When even leafs on the tree smell burnt

Would they not suspect?

19 July 2008

The Blind Boat

Grey are the clouds. Grey is the sun

As silent as a game of Dumb Charades

The wind strangles a silent howl

Lest they think she is awake

The blind boat vanished last night

We rummaged the alleys of silver city

A giant umbrella over our wet heads

A reluctant Nakata on our side

Somebody on the corner street whispered

‘A pretty red polka dotted umbrella’

Flattered but shy to admit so

We mumbled some gibberish prayers

Maybe the stupid finder of lost cats

Can talk to storm-torn boats

We suspect more since he says he can’t

For we know boats are cursed cats

To the south of the river of mirrors

We thought we saw a red sail

But the blind boat could not have dared

To look at its own face

There was a sudden movement in his dull eyes

As if he had heard an old lost song

Believing. Disbelieving. It amused us

But assured. We sighed and returned

13 July 2008

A Glimpse

And the white swamps

Won’t they answer?

If I asked

Why she refused

The song of a ruffling wind

When the harbor was lit

With beautiful oil lamps

Awaiting a glimpse

Of another night

15 June 2008

Our Own Dear Mad Hatter

The Mad Hatter limps, slowly
Across the wet patches of sand

His wound gives away, a scarlet

And wooden crutches trail along

Crossing over the bridge, by the wall

Where the portraits are neatly hung

He croons his beloved Cheerio song

Nobody knows whence he came from

There’re days when he laughs by himself

Gazing at golden-yellow fields of corn

Afternoons when scarecrows are sleepy

And the sparrows too tired to rob

They clap their hands when they see him

Children from other side of the bridge

They never throw stones, only chuckle

While he plays his role of a mad man

30 May 2008

The Rise and Fall of Masks

She thrust forward her clenched palm

The answer was a handful of red soil

Dust seeps through, flies in their face

Plastering the cracking paint on their masks

Rains have come. White ants run amuck

Terrified by whispers of damp courtyard walls

Snake and ladder is a favourite this season

They play pretending their voices don’t quiver

Water drops patters on the rusty tin roof

Wind weaves into it a silver resonance

Of noisy night insects and creaking doors

She looks at the clock. They do not dare

15 April 2008

Weaving the Rainbow

Her skin was like the winter morning sun. Drops of water trickled down her waist, meandering through her wet black hair, as she brushed them. It looked like a scarlet day to her. If not for the fallen red leaves, and the vermillion on her forehead it could have been a blue day. She could sense the colour of each day, and guessing it was her favourite pastime on mornings like this one. When she was younger she used to collect dry leaves and poems. Later her interests shifted to dreaming if their beauty was real. Now, she was a dream herself. The window in the room across the bookshelves had white panes. Mist enveloped the glass in cold darkness and with dawn it dripped down, leaving traces of an anxious night. The ruins of the stone wall and the crippled tree next to it were her most beloved gazing spots, when she sat at the window. They had witnesses the colours of her deepest reflections.

18 February 2008


The voyage awaits a nameless sky
She had promised to come

To sing a lullaby


Perhaps in a windy January

But she spent the month

In playing with the wind

Perhaps to forget

The promise of the voyage

That waits still, to name her

And yet she chose to remain


22 December 2007


It was a snow painted December.

Street lamps exposed their wrinkled snow faces.

The mask of twilight could no longer conceal them, or their white stories.

A pale leaf quivered and the gulls screeched, piercing the stillness in the air.

The mist was rising as children got ready for their bed-time stories. Silver stories.

He took the road to the house with the creaking window.
The whiff of the waves and an intoxicating wind swept his brown hair.
Again, he heard those songs. They were songs of a snow December.
Beyond the brick slabs, huddled in wild thorny lilies was the window.

Snow is the colour of this day, when I write to you.
I have worn a red scarf, to paint it with many hues.
The burgundy of forest vines, scarlet from forgotten autumn leaves.
Yes, it is a snow painted December.

28 November 2007


Unstrung shoe laces

Dragged along the pavement

At the red violin hour

Of a cold winter morning

When the scent of a pale mist

And a strident radio

Whispering, the rhythm

Of her mad breathlessness

The black-white crosswords

And a bottle of mulish ink

The wind soaked her dress

On a street swelled with broken stones

23 November 2007

On a stormy fifth floor

The white surf

Nudging their feet

Swirling and dancing

They whistled along

There was a mist

And the midnight sun

Of dry wind stories

On a stormy fifth floor

04 November 2007


An incensed surge

On the day of the tempest

When far she walked

With the howling wind

Beyond the deluge

Of an insane inferno

The yellow wax shadows

Laughed at her

25 October 2007

Who is the Good One?

When Meursault in Camus’ The Outsider says “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know”, we are left aghast! Why? Why does Meursault’s existence become absurd and meaningless to us if he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral? Why do we feel uncomfortable? There is something peculiarly uneasy about the situation.

Meursault, as it appears to the society in which he is living, refuses to participate in ‘human-ness’ by displaying a disinterest in the ‘natural’ behavior expected of him. The question strikes: Is Meursault human, or to be specific, is he a ‘good’ human? To us, on the face at least, the answer seems to defy our universal understanding of what it means (conventionally) to be human or to be good.

In Plato, the reason why we know that ‘X is white’, for instance, is because we know that X participates in what he would call the Form of whiteness. Is the wall in front of me red? For Plato, such a question can be answered only through recourse to the idea of participation between the universal Form and a particular instance of it in the world. The Form is thus that which provides intelligibility to our perceptions, consequently turning out to be not only the cause of all our knowledge of objects, but also the cause of the very existence of all things.

“Then that which provides their truth to the things known, and gives the power of knowing to the knower, you must say is the idea or principle of the good, and you must conceive it as being the cause of understanding and of truth in so far as known” (Plato, The Republic)

“Similarly with things known, you will agree that the good is not only the cause of their being known, but the cause that knowledge exists and of the state of knowledge ” (Plato, The Republic)

Given that Plato conceives of this intimate relation between the universal and the particular, let us ask the question: how would Plato judge Meursault? Would he make an ethical judgment?

The idea of the Good is crucial here. Goodness demands that the particular is faithful (to the extent of possibility) to its description/Form. This faithfulness is manifested at the same time as both ethical and aesthetic, like the portrait of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray) that shrivels and hideously changes into something aesthetically repulsive completely coinciding with the moral degradation of the man himself. The portrait may be used as a metaphor for the world of Becoming: that what is visible and thus dealing with the aesthetics of particulars— prone to change and decay. Being, on the other hand, is the realm of the intelligible (Beauty of Forms), which remains unchanged in its pure and pristine form. The goodness of a thing is a function of the internal order that it displays by virtue of its permanence, beauty and unity of Form. A good table for Plato will therefore manifest that beauty.

It seems then that the universal is the ground of the particular in so far as the latter successfully participates in the former. In the quest for a unifying principle to provide intelligibility to the Heraclitean world of flux, Parmenides postulates ‘The One’ or ‘Being’ as the only thing ‘that is’. Plato takes up this ‘Being’ and constructs, as it were, the realm of Forms. But where Parmenides and Zeno in postulating the ‘One’ end up denying the ‘many’ or the particulars, Plato retains them. In Plato’s ‘Divided Line’, Heraclitus finds a place in the perishing particulars, while Parmenides is accommodated in the universal, unchanging Forms.

In criticism of his theory of Forms, Parmenides offers a dilemma to young Socrates. The dilemma of participation in Plato’s Parmenides is of the structure of an exclusive disjunction. Parmenides argues that given Socrates’ claim that there is participation of particulars in Forms, it must either be in whole or in part. Parmenides uses the reductio argument to show that both the disjuncts are equally unacceptable and have to be rejected. In effect, the idea of participation itself has to be abandoned.

The notion of participation, however, is crucial as it is related to knowledge itself, especially, if by knowledge we mean what remains unchanged in the Parmenidean sense. The dilemma, therefore, presumes that the idea of participation cannot be given up as long as the reality of Forms is retained since the particulars, by means of participation, are our only access to the reality of Forms which represent a higher realm. At the same time, the existence of participation attempts to threaten the very essence of Forms, namely their unity and indivisibility.

Perhaps then Plato will find it hard to answer the question we pose to him: Is Meursault good? The knowledge (or the ascription) of the good is based on the foundation of participation. If there is no participation, then the idea of goodness will not apply to the particular. In this case, it would be difficult to account for the way an individual can be called good if he cannot participate in the Form of goodness.

But even if participation is granted in its vague way, the particular can only aspire but can never fully instantiate the Form. The Form of good is the perfect ideal or the archetype which is never achieved by individuals. For instance, one can never draw the perfect triangle. “a square in itself is what they speak of, and a diameter in itself, not the one they are drawing” (Plato, The Republic). There can merely be a striving towards good. One can then make a moral judgment only in terms of degrees or a gradation of participation. There are grades of goodness depending on their degree of participation to the Form of good. In fact, it appears that to even call the Forms ‘good’ is tautological. The concept of goodness cannot be applied to Forms in a strict way, because there is nothing to set this goodness against. It is the particular that can be relatively good or bad by virtue of the extent of its faithful representation of the Form. Humans can be good or bad, because they are a gradation in relation to the Form.

In setting out to examine, then, whether Merseault is good, one can make initial claims about whether he is relatively good only vis √† vis other members of the category of ‘human’, since a moral context is essential to make a moral judgment.

In Merseault this context is the society that seems to condemn him as an outsider resisting to conform. But perhaps Merseault can be rescued if we see him as an ‘outsider’ to the community (the conventional definition) alone, but not necessarily an ‘outsider’ to the Form of good. It is possible that other human particulars are not following the Form of good. Thus the outsider (to society), may well have internalized the Form of good, and therefore it would be rash to say that for Plato non-conventionality was necessarily an evil just because the individual did not participate in the universal conventions. What convention says is good, in a moral context, may not necessarily coincide with the Form of the good. One could argue, therefore, that one can prioritize, in Plato, the relation between the individual and the Form—not one between the individual and the community—because the community may well be engaging in immoral acts. This leaves us with the option of looking at the participation of an individual with the Form alone, unmediated through society, or conventional definitions.

The question now is: Will “goodness” make sense in the absence of the canons of good or the way others have laid them out for us?

Even before we set out to explore this question, it strikes that the way a subject relates to its Form appears to be of a different kind from the relation that exists between an object and its Form. The subject can choose to deviate from its Form, while the object quite obviously cannot. Isn’t this what the existentialist demands in the first place? This brings us to the point then that objects must be different from subjects, which is why the discourse of ethicality even applies to subjects. For Hegel, the centre of objects which determines them concentrates into a point outside themselves called gravitation (Hegel, The Philosophy of History). Subjects, on the other hand, have their centre within them in their freedom which allows them to move towards an infinite possibility of recreating value for themselves.

Kierkegaard therefore severely criticizes the claims to generalize behaviour of individuals in terms of descriptions or predications, and he is upfront against the determination of subjects. This would, however, be unacceptable to Plato for whom the Form determines the particular in all cases, and who provides no explicit privilege to the ‘subject’ as against inanimate objects. An essentialist reading of Forms brings out a certain determinism in values.

Existentialist angst can be seen as emanating out of the obligation to conform to canons of good or essences that community simply bestows on us. The absurdity of a meaningless universe results from this conflict. The existentialist is trying to fight that very curb on freedom, on the one hand, by pursuing to destroy existing ideals and values, but more importantly, on the other hand, by aiming to recreate and redefine ethicality.

However, it seems that the ‘Other’ is a pre-condition of that act of redefining or recreating. Merseault is an ‘outsider’ precisely because there is a society which allows him to develop that identity. In either case, the ‘Other’ is important. Merseault wishes to break the boundary of what it means to be good. In other words, he is setting out to redefine the good for himself, and, in the process, for others. To postulate deviance of this sort, however, now brings us to the radical point that forms are amenable to change. This would be clearly devastating for Plato’s theory of forms.

Ethicality makes sense in the context or the discourse of the ‘Other’ which may manifest itself in the “Form” of conventionality! In this sense, deviance is central to morality, and yet it requires that there is a prior moral code that allows a person to indulge in it, to recreate values for oneself. The unmediated relation between the individual and the Form cannot be fully understood. It is convention that defines things for us. To define something good or bad we need conventionality, because a pure absence of that leaves us with nothing to set the deviance against. Morality can only be defined in terms of the ‘Other’ and that ‘Other’ becomes available in a society –in the context of a conventional morality (what convention defines to be the Form of good).

Socrates, for instance, represents the incorrigible urge to question things that have been taken for granted, the supposed adversary being conventional morality. In all his honesty he was convinced of his own moral righteousness. He says in The Apology: “And therefore, Athenians, I say, whether you acquit me or not, I shall not change my way of life; no, not if I have to die for it many times” (Plato’s Apology, stanza XVII). The question that arises before us is whether Socrates was in fact guilty of the crimes charged against him. The answer appears rather ambiguous. If we seek to resolve this peculiar complexity, we may have to look at three different hypothetical situations:

1. Socrates has done wrong but believes that he has done right. Here the idea of right would be that which is conventionally right, and Socrates has done wrong in so far as he has neglected it.
2. Socrates has done right but Athenians who put him to death believe he has done wrong. In so far as Socrates was rationally convinced that he is right, he was not morally at fault. Athenians however working within confines of conventional morality believed he was wrong. This points at a kind of conflict of principles.
3. Socrates has done right and Athenians who put him to death know so, but put him to death for extra moral/legal reasons. For e.g., they might have wanted to get rid of Socrates, who had humiliated them in public by demonstrating their ignorance.
Nevertheless, it might be said that in a way Socrates was rightly put to death in the Apology because within the context of the Athenian State, it was the ‘right’ thing to do. Society makes the philosopher who is then expected to retain the Form of the city (which has made him or her). At the same time, what is given also enables the philosopher to recreate canons of “rightness” by deviating from the given. In either case, the identity of the self or subject is characteristically reinforced in the presence of ‘Others’.

The Forms for Plato flow down from the Form of the Good: going from the most general, abstract and objective to the most particular and subjective. All particular Forms are subsumed under more general Forms, and all Forms are finally subsumed under the Form of the Good. For Plato it is the universal which provides meaning to any thought construction, and thus his movement is from up to down. However, we are taking an Aristotelian turn here, in saying that it is the group of particulars as defined by convention that concretizes and characterizes the Form. These are our only access to anything intelligible. It is convention that is available to us, is our access to morality or any explanation of good.

To conclude, it can only be a ‘subject’ that deviates from a Form, precisely because it is a subject and not an object. But the subjectivity of the subject is reinforced only by the presence of the ‘Other’. It is the matrices that the others create (to which the subject belongs) which make our moral judgments intelligible. When we are defining morality, we are taking conventionality as a standard within a given context. For us, that is the “Form” of goodness— which we either strive to instantiate, or deviate from so that we can recreate and redefine values. It emerges that the Good is both static as Parmenides’ Being and vacillating in Heraclitean flux. It is stable within the boundaries of a given context; at the same time it is potentially dynamic. To return to the question we began with, the ‘good’ of Merseault cannot be judged in absolute terms. The ethicality of his being is a function of a dual perspective—one from within the “Form” bestowed by the community (in which he may be wrong) and another from outside it (in which he may be right). In effect, Merseault is our Socrates who is condemned and yet perhaps adored.
"As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."

— Meursault in L’√Čtranger (Albert Camus, L’√Čtranger).

* This is an edited version of the original article.