Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means Rising Up and Rising Down discussion

Reading *Rising Up and Rising Down*

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Cody (last edited Oct 23, 2008 11:14AM) (new) - added it

Cody Jesse and I are reading this over the course of the next couple of months. For brevity and sanity's sake, we're reading the abridged edition from Harper. Anyone who wants to join-in, chime-in, call us out, etc., is more than welcomed to do so (hence putting this discussion up on Goodreads).


message 2: by Cody (last edited Sep 19, 2008 09:59AM) (new) - added it

Cody Three Meditations on Death and Introduction (Week 1; pp. 1-49)

What little apprehension I had before embarking on the reading of this massive tome has mostly been assuaged by the “Three Mediations on Death” and the “Introduction.” While I feel that Vollmann, perhaps, over-iterates his qualifications and justifications for taking on such an enormous project that is concerned with a topic that has been disputed for time immemorial, these “excuses” provide a humbleness and veil him in an endearing enough light for me to give him the benefit of the doubt throughout.

More importantly, for me, is his continued claim that this is a work of literature and meditation. While I know that, at it’s heart, Rising Up and Rising Down is a theoretical text (it’s certainly not a novel), the degree to which Vollmann values and employs literary aesthetics makes, for me, this work more engaging, digestible, and meaningful—seeing as I am one who adores philosophy but does not quite have the analytical mind nor intellect for it (e.g. I gather less from Benjamin’s texts than an essay on Benjamin by Coetzee). For at any of the points in the “Meditations” or “Introduction” when I felt his perennial qualifications were drawing on a bit too long or were a bit too guarded, Vollmann would quickly insert some personal experience or stunning descriptive passage that would not only reestablish my connection with the text but also often poignantly illustrate the theoretical point(s) at hand.

Having said this, though, I think that, personal preferences aside, Vollmann’s argument for the presence of “description” (i.e. literary aesthetics) in a work like RUaRD is a compelling one, even for the more philosophically inclined. Furthering his humbleness: “…I figured that if my theorizing were wrong or unpalatable, the reader might at least have some moments of pleasure.” (p. 49) I can certainly get behind that. And as a more “universally” compelling argument: “I truly believe in the utility of such a conception of motivation [‘ethos of homeland’:]—people kill for what they cry for—and I want you to believe it. How else can I convey the feeling of a specific place except through description?” (p. 49)

Finally, of all of the initial ideas and theory tossed out in the “Meditations” and “Introduction,” I found his weariness of “authority” of experience (“On the Pleasures of Making Authoritative Statements” and “Statistical Niceties”) novel and noteworthy. How often have I claimed authority over someone else that I felt did not understand my experience? Well, says Vollmann, that’s a useless stance to take. His example of Shalamov, the Soviet prisoner who witnessed thousands of deaths at Kolyma, is telling. For while Shalamov spent almost twenty years in Siberia, experiencing the torture firsthand, even he cannot consider himself wholly an authority, for he did not experience every single death at Kolyma, nor can he ever know what such an experience meant to each prisoner there. Empathy, claims Vollmann, is desired and feasible but achieving the harmony of true sympathy is a myth.

message 3: by Jesse (last edited Sep 28, 2008 12:31PM) (new) - added it

Jesse Cody, that's an interesting point that you make regarding the Shalamov anecdote. I hadn't thought about the question of sympathy versus empathy in this context. I realize now how it could tie in with Vollmann's justification of descriptive language and his rejection of the notion of authority. All three ideas emphasize the subjective aspect of the project. When I first read about the book and heard about the moral calculus, I thought about Kant's work on morality, how he sort of seemed to be creating a guide to moral living that was as abstracted from reality, as totally objective as possible. A system, in short, that could be applied to experience without having first been taught by experience. Of course, I'm not philosophically inclined either so my interpretation is probably lacking. Anyway, now that I've read the introduction to Vollmann's book, I realize that his calculus will be built on his own experience and his inevitably subjective interpretations of the motivations of various historical actors. It's interesting because Vollmann gently teases Hannah Arendt and Peter Kropotkin for their outbursts of optimism regarding the future of war but relies for his own purposes on the notion that we can learn something about morality (not just successful vs. unsuccessful battle tactics) from history, which is pretty optimistic on his part. On a sort of related note, I was wondering why he chose to open the book with meditations on death. Is a book about violence necessarily a book about death or was he using the idea of death to say something else about his project? I was intrigued by his description of the catacombs as a "necrophile's beach," a beach with no ocean. Death is something that can't be experienced and it's a subject on which no one can claim to be an authority. Vollmann claims that he reached a point where he was unwilling to immerse himself any further in the experience of violence and admits that his book may suffer somewhat for that reason, that it will be "more broad than deep." So what I'm saying is that it will be interesting to read the book and see how far the death/ocean idea goes. The fact that he created the moral calculus suggests that he sees his subject (a personal code of ethics regarding violence) as something that can be pinned down with relative precision but those meditations on death that open the book suggest otherwise, focusing our attention on an elusive concept, one of the "unknowables" of human experience. So is this whole project an attempt to reverse-engineer a categorical imperative and are the mediations on death an apology or explanation for his failure?

message 4: by Cody (last edited Sep 29, 2008 12:16PM) (new) - added it

Cody I'm still wrapping-up "Lonely Atoms," and I'm still unsure where Vollmann stands on your question about how death is to be perceived in RUaRD. I was reading the sections on suicide this morning, and he referred to death in that context as another "violent act." If this is the case, then I suppose that death (at least in certain instances) can fall within the scope of a moral calculus--something that can sometimes be pinned down, as you say. I suppose, as you mentioned, we'll have to see how far he takes these ideas as the text unfolds.

Along these lines, I can't help but feel that, thus far, Volmann's fallen into a bit of a trap using different forms of death as ideas that are, seemingly, interchangeable with forms of violence, or, more accurately, that death is an element of violence (rather than each being separate events/ideas that are often connected with one another). In fact, often, it seems as though death and violence are the same thing to him--or, at least, are used as the same thing in many of his illustrations. Yet, at other times, he refers to the effects of violence often reaping the most dire consequences on those that survive, which implies that death and violence are not the same thing (which, I feel, is how most people would look at these two ideas). Perhaps, I'm missing something, or I'm being too picky, but I do feel he's being a bit inconsistent in this regard.

message 5: by Cody (last edited Sep 29, 2008 12:22PM) (new) - added it

Cody Lonely Atoms (Week 2; pp. 50-144)

“Surely it is better to have a rational and consistent means of doing these things than to do them trying not to think of what one is doing” (p. 143) We finally have a proper foundation to build upon. Throughout the first 120 pages, or so, I was bothered by the fact that, thus far, Vollmann, in formulating his pronouncements and calculus, was making an enormous, but seemingly unacknowledged, assumption: that humans will always act rationally. Thankfully—I knew it was coming, I just didn’t realize how much he’d work up to it—he got around to this point in “Lonely Atoms,” and clarified it properly, most poignantly by employing St. Thomas Aquinas: “Evil…in human operations lies in someone exceeding the measure of reason.” (p. 123)

The task Vollmann has set about in RUaRD is grand and nearly impossible...and that’s assuming that humans will stop, consider, and then act rationally in a trying situation (the First Law of Violent Action: The inertia of the situation into which we inject ourselves must always be given the benefit of the doubt): that’s the most we can hope for. Vollmann’s acknowledgement of the near futility of this calculus working on a grand scale is a sign of true rationality, an admirable admission. Furthermore, his willingness to spend twenty-five years writing a work at the center of which is a labored and hard earned point (come at the cost of grave sacrifices) that will likely be cast aside by most in a moment of passion and irrationality is exceptionally meritorious, in my opinion. Why even embark on such a seemingly futile venture? Because one must do something...and there’s no point in doing anything if it is not as sound, well-reasoned, realistic, and ethical as possible. For if it is anything else, its phony and liable to fall prey to the “enemy"...

Though I'm rendered frustrated at times with this seeming futility, Vollmann’s honesty, thoroughness, and reason keeps me not only reading but invested and intrigued, as well.

message 6: by Jesse (last edited Oct 04, 2008 09:51PM) (new) - added it

Jesse "Vollmann, in formulating his pronouncements and calculus, was making an enormous, but seemingly unacknowledged, assumption: that humans will always act rationally." Yes, that's a good point. Maybe it's best to think about this project as a big "what if": what if humans always acted rationally in even the most trying circumstances? In the kinds of situations that come immediately to mind when I think "violent acts" (planted there by newspapers and TV, mostly), I see one party lashing out (unpredictably, unjustifiably) and another - a blameless victim - erecting whatever kind of defense (anything is permitted, anything is justified) that he or she can. So rationality exists on only one side of this equation. If we think of film heroes, we often see a very cool, collected hero rationally asking "what is the best way of doing violence to my enemy?" - there is seldom any question of justification. So this brings me to the material that interested me most in this week's reading: the investigation of the (sometimes ambiguous, sometimes not) relationship between an aggressor and the target of that aggression and how that relationship is connected to the idea of a “social contract.” One example that stood out for me was the unspoken agreement between Vollmann's anti-nuclear affinity group and the police who (at the moment he describes) were adversaries of the group as a whole yet charged with the service and protection of its individual members. His group understood that the police would repel them violently but also understood that the violence would only be allowed to reach a certain pitch as long as his group remained non-violent (or at the very least that his group would have a valid cause for grievance if things turned Kent State on them). That is an example of a clear aggressor/target-of-aggression scenario, yet the group at the receiving end of violence is the one that is guilty of breaking the social contract (by trespassing, cutting a fence, etc.). Vollmann doesn't break this scenario down but if he did, he would certainly be looking at the idea of self-defense, the catch-all justification for violent action. His group defended themselves best by remaining non-violent. Meanwhile, the police defended the interests that they represent by being violent only to a point – making the experience extremely unpleasant for the protesters and discouraging future actions. The police represent that “inertia” mentioned in Vollmann's First Law of Violent Action. Had the police chosen to be non-violent, they would actually be breaking the social contract themselves. I won't go on and on about it but the case of Walter Brown gives us two actors in a situation where the roles aren't so clear. Although Vollmann clearly admires Brown, he concedes that when he applies his code, Brown's actions are less justified than those of his unidentified adversary. So that brings us back to The inertia of the situation into which we inject ourselves must always be given the benefit of the doubt. I think that most of us respect Brown for the values he represents and turn our backs on the slave-owner (whose interests include unlimited license to perpetrate violence on a group of people unprotected by law). But the question of who is ultimately right and who is wrong is not simple. Instead we have to ask who is most right. This leads us to the hypothetical soldiers in hand-to-hand combat who (in the name of self-defense, defense of motherland and allegiance to duty) have followed passive, defensive propositions to reach the “horrible de facto agreement” that each must try to kill the other. Both are rational, both are violent, like the action heroes of film. Is it only ever the weaker party (such as the anti-nuke group) for whom non-violence is the most rational option?

message 7: by Jesse (new) - added it

Jesse I'm a little behind this week. Shall we try to hit pg. 279 by 10/13?

message 8: by Cody (new) - added it

Cody Sounds good, as I, too, am rather behind this week.

message 9: by Cody (last edited Oct 13, 2008 12:16PM) (new) - added it

Cody Justifications: Self-Defense

“Is it only ever the weaker party (such as the anti-nuke group) for whom non-violence is the most rational option?” This is a really interesting point, Jesse, and I wish Vollmann would’ve tackled it in his musings. I would tend to say “yes” to this idea, only I might phrase it “Is it only ever the weaker party that has the ability and desire to act non-violently [according the social-contract:].” It’s as though only those who have broken the social contract have the “luxury” of acting non-violently (or refusing to act violently) in a situation like the one above. Hence the disobedience element of “civil disobedience.” How mangled and contrary situations can become in a complicated social contract! This sort of recalls The Wire in that the cops/prosecutors are wholly aware of those that are acting illegally, but, yet, they have to bide their time and collect copious evidence until it can be legally proven that illegal acts—as determined by the social contract—have been truly been performed. Hmmm…

As for Justifications: Self-Defense, I’m still working my way through this section, but I am once again struck by Vollmann’s methods that echo throughout the text thus far. His approach is truly one of “in order to be victorious, one must know their enemy through and through.” I bring this up as, just a handful of pages into this rather long section, he states, while discussing Napoleon, “...collective honor ought never to be its own justification. True honor, the only kind whose defense is justifiable, is that which allows one to evaluate the goodness of an end, and to make a judgment as to the ethical suitability of a means to an end.” (p. 159) In other words, none of these examples of self-defense are valid unless they are “true” and truly “justifiable.” Thus far, Vollmann has merely been dwelling on a collection of supposed justifications that he picks apart and renders unjust. Are we going to be given cases which are just, or is the maxim above as impossible as his assumption in Lonely Atoms that in order for his methods to work humans must act rationally? Is this another case of what you called a big “what if”?

As always, the text itself is exceptionally interesting, but his continuous method of qualifying everything (i.e. covering his ass at every turn), which I see in one sense as admirable, at other times almost works contrarily, in that, while it’s hard to disagree with his ideas at the core, his ideas are virtually, seemingly impossible, thus, rendering his attempts at nothing more than a hollow “what if?”.

message 10: by Cody (new) - added it

Cody Vollmann’s use of property and its related conflicts, as folded into his discussion of "Defense of Class," is extremely enlightening. It not only brings to the forefront an element on which virtually all cultures presently are built, but it adds nuances, through a discussion of many sundry cultures’ notions and uses of property, that one would not encounter by solely reading Marx.

This section has been, for me, a cause for thought about the nature of property and its continuous “sacred” (and violent) place within most societies. Why is that? Is it an inevitable outcome? Thinking about this brought to mind the character of Squalidozzi, the Argentine Anarchist in Gravity’s Rainbow, who says:

“In the days of the gauchos, my country was a blank piece of paper. The pampas stretched as far as men could imagine, inexhaustible, fenceless. Wherever the gaucho could ride, that place belonged to him. But Buenos Aires sought hegemony over the provinces. All those neuroses about property gathered strength, and began to infect the countryside. Fences went up, and the gaucho became less free. It is our national tragedy. We are obsessed by labyrinths, where before there was the open plain and sky. To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet. We cannot abide the openness: it is terror to us. Look at Borges. Look at the suburbs of Buenos Aires. The tyrant Rosas has been dead a century, but his cult flourishes. Beneath the city streets, the warrens of rooms and corridors, the fences and the networks of steel track, the Argentine heart, in its perversity and guilt, longs for a return to that first unscribbled serenity . . . that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky. . .”

As always, I still have a ways to go in this section…

message 11: by Marc (new) - rated it 5 stars

Marc just finished the book. is this thread still alive?

message 12: by Cody (last edited Feb 20, 2009 06:57PM) (new) - added it

Cody Hi, Marc. I just now came across your posting. Sadly, the thread died. I'm not sure if Jesse ended up finishing it, but I set it aside about mid-way through (I'd like to blame the fact that I'm in grad school, but that's a bit unfair, as I have a history of reading about half of a handful of Vollmann's texts).

Nice work finishing it! I'd love to hear your thoughts. It'd be a nice means of passing on the torch, in a sense...

back to top