Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The future of higher education

A gloomy post to end the year, possibly because I spend too much time reading about the academic job market. I'll try to make the next post cheerier.

I once meant to say something about Coetzee's thoughts on the future of higher education, but I don't remember doing so. (Actually I do remember doing so, but I assume it's a false memory since I can't find it by searching the blog.) And then I just read this TED talk on TED talks by Benjamin Bratton, which left me with similar pessimistic thoughts. Coetzee writes that:
All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.
Bratton says:
If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
Both seem right. And of course the economy does not want transformation. Nor do most people. So universities won't provide it.

I used to think that I went to college because I wanted to learn, but of course what my peers were doing and what my parents expected had a lot to do with it. Money and social class were probably the underlying concerns. And today people don't seem to care about social class very much, except to the extent that it has become something that money can buy. All you really need is money. So I don't see much hope for the humanities except in the form of the courses Coetzee describes: "Reading and Writing" and "Great Ideas," for instance. (Except that they won't have these names because they are too honest to be taken seriously by the people in charge of naming.) Perhaps a few boutique humanities programs will survive, but I can't really see why they would. It just doesn't make much sense to get a PhD in a humanities subject any more, and who will teach in these programs if no one has a relevant PhD? Nor can I imagine the politician who will fight to increase public funding for the humanities. So, doom.

But it's not all doom. I don't think the end will come overnight. I don't think it is certain. And I don't believe that philosophy, art, etc, will just disappear if they aren't much taught in universities any more. Perhaps they will even make a comeback after the 'exciting' integration of disciplines (philosophy only being taught by business ethicists, literature only taught by historians who want to add a bit of colour to their courses, etc.) turns out to be a dead end.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ethics and the Tractatus

Kevin Cahill argues that the Tractatus cannot achieve its ethical purpose. If the resolute reading is right then this purpose, he suggests, must be something like what James Conant and Michael Kremer have said it is. Conant compares the Tractatus with Kierkegarrd's Concluding Unscientific Postscript because both provide "a mirror in which the reader can recognize his own confusions" and have "the reader climb up a ladder which in the end he is to throw away." Kremer connects the Tractatus with Saint Paul and Augustine, suggesting (in Kevin's words) "that one of Wittgenstein's fundamental goals in that book was to expose as illusory all attempts for ultimate justification in logic, metaphysics, and of course, ethics." Both Conant and Kremer, Kevin says, see Wittgenstein as trying to use nonsense to bring about "a change in the reader's self-understanding through a change in her relationship to language" where the change in question is "characterized primarily by how we do and do not act, not by what we know."

He cannot succeed, though, according to Kevin, because "the method in the Tractatus presupposes a view of language and philosophical confusion that is far too narrow." The book is too intellectualist, and tries to do its work by showing us what a sentence is.

If the (relevant part of the) book consists entirely of nonsense, though, then it surely cannot hope to show us what a sentence is. It can at most show us what a sentence is not. That is, if you start with a certain idea of what a sentence is and then follow that through until you end up in patent nonsense then you have shown that the original idea was wrong. But you can't show what we ought to believe instead in this way. Kevin isn't talking about what the Tractatus says about language, though, but about what its method presupposes. If it aims to show that all attempts at ultimate justification in logic, metaphysics, and ethics are illusory then he is probably right. But if the aim is as Conant describes, i.e. if the aim is to show the reader something, not to show something completely general, then whether it succeeds or fails will surely depend on the reader. And Wittgenstein says that:
This book will perhaps only be understood by one who has himself already at some time thought the thoughts that are expressed herein – or at least similar thoughts. –It is therefore not a textbook.—Its end would be reached if it gave pleasure to one person who read it with understanding.          
If the reader has the right confusions then I don't see that Kevin has given any reason to think the book cannot work as intended on him (the suitably confused reader). Can a book like this bring about change in how one lives? Well, I don't see why not. If one's problems are intellectualist then an intellectualist book might be just the thing. Of course it might not work. One might give up one kind of intellectualist wrong path only to take up another. But I don't see that failure is guaranteed.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Useful and harmful animals

Re-reading Kevin Cahill's "Ethics and the Tractatus: A Resolute Failure" I was struck by this passage from Wittgenstein's Nachlass that Kevin translates and quotes:
Why now am I so anxious to keep these kinds of uses of 'Assertions' separate from one another? Is it necessary? Did people before really not correctly understand what they wanted to do with a sentence? Is it pedantry?—It is merely an attempt to do justice to each kind of use. That is to say a reaction against the overvaluation of science. Using the word 'science' for 'everything that can be said that is not nonsense' already expresses this overestimation. Because in reality this means dividing assertions into two classes: good and bad; and therein already lies the danger. It would be similar to if one were to divide all animals, plants, and rocks into useful and harmful. But of course the words 'to do justice to them' and 'overvaluation' express my position.
This brings to mind the Lecture on Ethics, which distinguishes between the relative/trivial/scientific/intelligible and the ethical/religious/absolute/nonsensical, and the Tractatus, which says:
6.53 The right method for philosophy would properly be this: To say nothing other than what can be said, thus propositions of natural science – thus something that has nothing to do with philosophy –, and then always, if another wanted to say something metaphysical, to point out to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying for the other person – he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy – but it would be the only strictly correct one. 
So there we have what can be said/natural science versus nonsense/metaphysics. Now what's wrong with this? One obvious complaint, perhaps the obvious one, is to say that it is grossly unfair to at least some of what is categorized as nonsensical. But that isn't what Wittgenstein says. He says that it is unjust because it overvalues at least some of what is categorized as meaningful. What would be wrong with dividing animals into the useful and the harmful is not that we would inevitably make mistakes, labeling useful animals harmful, for instance, but that it is overly simple. The danger lies already in the division into two. We need a higher number (if we are going to divide at all).

Or is it the division into good and bad specifically that is dangerous? Useful animals might be only somewhat useful, after all. Horses can be very useful, but baby pandas are almost completely useless. They might make it onto the 'useful' list (they are valuable for zoo-owners, for instance), but you wouldn't want to confuse their utility with that of horses. Perhaps some harmful animals have their uses: sharks are fun to look at and think about, their fins make allegedly tasty soup, but you don't want them in your swimming pool. If you had to classify them as either useful or harmful, I think it's clear they belong in the 'harmful' category. If they don't then almost nothing does. What seems to concern Wittgenstein most is not this kind of problem, though, but the opposite one: some 'useful' animals or sentences might not be all that great after all.

Surely he doesn't want to reject the meaning/nonsense distinction altogether. It's the equation of the former with science that he objects to. Not all useful assertions are good. And not all scientific assertions are useful.

One last thought: Kevin also quotes the part of the foreword that says, "the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive" and 6.54, which says:
My propositions elucidate by whoever understands me perceiving them in the end as nonsensical, when through them – upon them – over them, he has climbed out. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed out upon it.)
He must overcome these propositions, then he sees the world rightly.
It's been a while since I read much work on the Tractatus, but I have the feeling that people tend to think either that it consists entirely of purportedly true thoughts or else entirely of purportedly elucidatory propositions. Can't it contain both? Can't "My propositions elucidate.." refer only to those propositions that do elucidate, i.e. to the nonsensical sentences, and "the thoughts communicated here" refer only to the thoughts that are communicated, i.e. to the meaningful sentences? Unfortunately he connects these true thoughts with the solving of the problems with which the book deals, which suggests that most of the book consists of such thoughts. What, then, would be the propositions that we are to overcome? On the other hand, he doesn't actually claim that he communicates any thoughts at all, does he? And if he doesn't then that might explain his confidence in the unassailability of their truth: their truth can't be assailed because they don't exist.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My gambling problem

This isn't going to be a confession, sorry. The problem is this: is gambling rational?

Very often people say that it is not rational to buy lottery tickets, even going so far as to call lotteries a tax on stupidity. I dislike that joke partly because I think it's more accurate to call it a tax on desperation, and jokes at the expense of the desperately poor aren't funny. Partly, also, because I buy lottery tickets from time to time (despite not being desperately poor), and jokes at the expense of me are never funny. There's also the fact that it is rational to buy a $1 lottery ticket if you get $1 worth of pleasure from it. And fantasizing about what you would do if you won can be very pleasant (much more pleasant if you have a ticket than if you don't). Or at least as pleasant as about a third of a latte. But, here's the problem, is that fantasizing rational? It isn't realistic. It's not like fantasizing about what you might do with money you know you are going to inherit or get from selling your business, say. It's not like fantasizing about spending money you know you have a realistic chance of getting either. It's sheer fantasy. It's not taking pleasure in an aspect of reality but in a kind of escape, or looking away, from reality. And 'irrational' might not be the right word for that kind of pleasure, but it's in the ballpark.

A related issue is the rationality of voting. It's often said that voting is irrational because the cost outweighs the likely benefits, much like gambling. Max Black, as I recall, argues that it can be rational if the stakes are high enough. He's right that the likely benefits need to be taken into account, and not just the odds of one vote being the decider, but I don't think this is enough. In many elections the good candidate is not so much better than the bad candidate that voting is rational on some kind of cost-benefit model. But the idea that voting is irrational immediately raises the question: what if everyone thought that way (and acted accordingly)? It would, most people agree, be bad. Can it really be rational to behave in a way that would be bad if universalized?

It depends, of course, on your conception of rationality. The dominant one is roughly Humean and the alternative I'm groping towards is roughly Kantian. The Humean one counts as rational any act that is an effective means to whatever your ends may be. The more effective, the more rational. So buying lottery tickets is irrational if your end is maximizing your expected wealth, but it might be rational if your end is maximizing your expected pleasure. There is no question, though, whether it is rational to have this or that end.

It is slightly amazing that that conception of rationality has caught on, given how counterintuitive it is. As Anscombe points out, it is irrational to want a cup of mud or to put all your green books on the roof (in the absence of something that makes it rational after all, of course). It is irrational--insane--to want to be killed and eaten. If we are going to distinguish the sane from the insane then I think we need this sense of rationality. The mentally ill are not just inefficient or wrong about the facts. Sometimes their ends make no sense. So I think we need something like the Kantian notion of rationality, and if we use this instead of the Humean one then problems about the rationality of voting go away, while the idea that buying lottery tickets is rational (except perhaps in odd circumstances) also goes away. This also speaks in favour of the Kantian notion.

The problem, of course, is that this notion is obscure. It is closely connected with a notion of humanity, of what it means to be human, and that is difficult terrain. It is also essentially normative, which complicates things. Those aren't reasons to give up on it though.        

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Required-course college essays

If you care about this kind of thing at all you've probably already read Rebecca Schuman's anti-essay essay. It's all over the place (where "the place" is Facebook). So maybe you haven't seen it. In a nutshell, what she argues is that student essays in required courses are a waste of time:
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellow humanists insist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him.
For this she has been pilloried. Quoting only from some of my Facebook friends:
  • Wow. She's bitter. She's selfish. And she seems to miss entirely the point of what college is all about. Or, rather, what it should be all about. Methinks she's part of the problem, rather than an enlightened bearer of an A-ha solution.
    16 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Yeah, I have to say I think it's pretty crap. She generalizes, she simplifies, she claims she's tried everything when she hasn't tried much and her approaches aren't in any way shape or form informed by that reading thing she claims her students never do.
It struck me that the author of the first of these comments, and both the people who liked it, are very well paid, tenured professors, and that the author teaches at a school with unusually good students. Part of Schuman's point is that she isn't paid enough to do the hard work of teaching mediocre students how to write. So there's that. But let me get out of the way the criticisms that seem accurate and then move on to what Schuman gets right, or at least is right to bring up for discussion.

Of course she's bitter. See here, for instance, if you want to know more about that. Selfish? I don't see evidence for (or against) that here. I think he means lazy, but there is reason to believe that's not true. See here, for instance (worth looking at anyway, as it's a response to some of the misguided pillorying (and for another response to that see here)). Does she seem to miss the point of what college should be about? I don't think so. One of her points is that college is not what it should be. More on that below. She does generalize, of course, and simplify, and she has not tried literally everything. But she has tried more than you might think from just reading that one essay (see the last two links above in this paragraph).

So what is she right about? She's right that a surprising number of students manage to get into college despite being more or less illiterate. In graduate school, when I was at a very highly regarded "public Ivy" university, I taught students who apparently could not write a single sentence without a grammatical mistake in it. I'm told by a colleague that we have students here (in a college that has produced two Rhodes scholars in the last fifteen years) who cannot comprehend a newspaper editorial. That is, given an editorial in the Wall Street Journal they were unable to read it with enough comprehension to answer even the most basic questions about it (like: what is it about?, which side of the debate does it support?, etc.). At less prestigious schools these problems must be even worse. If it were one or two special cases that would be one thing, but it isn't. There are a lot of these people. The obvious response would be to admit fewer illiterate students, to help those who can be helped as much as possible if they are admitted, and to flunk those who are admitted but don't respond well to the help available.

This doesn't happen. If colleges and universities did not admit illiterate students then they might not have enough students to stay in business. They certainly wouldn't be able to field competitive sports teams or to keep alumni with illiterate children happy. Once the academically weak students are in they cannot be flunked out because attrition is bad for a school's US News & World Report ranking. And professors who give Fs and Ds aren't popular. Unpopular teachers don't get tenure at teaching schools. And unpopular majors have their departments shut down. Unpopular adjuncts, of course, just get fired. Everyone must be kept happy, but there is no incentive for anyone to help students learn how to read and write. Or almost no incentive.

Here's what we do at my school. Every student takes two semesters of composition and then two more writing-intensive courses. There's a Writing Center to help students with problems, but the people there don't proofread student papers, they only give general advice and instruction. Any other writing that students have to do is up to individual professors, as long as their department heads approve of what they are doing, and as long as what they do is deemed good enough to get tenure. Teaching people how to write is not something most of us have been trained to do, it isn't in our job description, it takes time away from teaching our subjects and doing research, and it isn't what students want. There is no incentive to do it, in other words. And writing-intensive courses require a lot of writing, but they are not courses in composition. Papers need not be graded on anything so mundane as grammar or spelling, and these courses are not taught by people with any training in the teaching of composition. I mention all this because I suspect it is pretty typical, not to take a dig at my school. In short, the only courses that students have to take that are aimed at improving their writing are those two first-year composition courses, and as far as I can tell it isn't possible to teach students how to write in that time.

Schuman's suggestion is that professors teaching required (but, presumably, non-composition) courses should not assign traditional essays in their courses because it will just be an exercise in frustration. I think she has a point. The conclusion I draw is not that those professors should not assign essays, but that everyone else should assign them too. And we should be prepared to give Fs to the students she describes who simply don't turn major assignments in. That means not caring so much about popularity and rankings. Which means caring about education, not money. Which means it isn't going to happen. But if the schools we work for don't care about education, why should some professors work hard to educate when many of their colleagues don't bother with the more onerous parts of the job, and when they aren't being compensated by their employers for doing it? Shit is fucked up and bullshit, to coin a phrase. And that, I take it, is Schuman's point.      

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The problem of other minds

There's nowt as queer as folk, as the saying goes. This can make communication difficult, especially online (where you can't use non-verbal cues and are often talking to people you don't know very well). So it was with some trepidation that I attempted a light-hearted comment over at Philosophical Investigations. The thought of (possibly quite small amounts of) drink leading to someone's being banned from the pubs a philosophical forum struck me as funny. If I could draw I'd try to combine this:

With this:

But does my comment come across as friendly banter or as condescending and insulting? I think I got away with it, but it can be hard to know. And if philosophers are autistic then I might never know. (You can take a 'fun quiz' here to find out whether you might be autistic. The average score is about 16, problem scores seem to start at 32, and I got a worrying 28.)

I wasn't going to blog about any of this (perhaps for obvious reasons--it's Twitter-worthy at best), but then I read Mohan Matthen quoting Wittgenstein and commenting as follows:
We think there must be something going on in one's mind for one to understand the word 'plant'. We are inclined to say that what we mean by one's understanding the word is a process in the mind. ... There is a way out of the difficulty of explaining what understanding is if we take 'understanding a word' to mean, roughly, being able to use it. The point of this explanation is to replace 'understanding a word' by 'being able to use a word', which is not so easily thought of as denoting an [inner] activity. 
Apparently, according to him, there is nothing going on in one’s mind when one comes to understand a word.
How can an intelligent and philosophically sophisticated person misread so badly? It's true that the first sentence here suggests that Wittgenstein might be open to the possibility that there might not be something going on in one's mind when one understands the word 'plant'. (And that does sound odd, though not necessarily wrong.) But he doesn't say this. What he says (or implies) is that there is a problem if we go from this thought to saying (or thinking) that what we mean by understanding a word is a process in the mind. And he suggests a cure for this problem.

The problem, I take it, is that any 'process in the mind' that is supposedly what we mean when we talk about understanding would be very obscure. What is the mind? What might a process in it be? How have we managed to refer to such a process without knowing what it is or ever experiencing it? I have experienced understanding, but not as an internal process. Wittgenstein proposes that we focus less on what we apparently must be talking about and more on what we actually do. Matthen resists doing this, instead relying on appeal to standard views and rhetorical questions ("Such a categorical change must be a mental change—what else could it be?"), along with an apparent presupposition that "understanding a word" must refer to this mental change.  All very odd.     

My point is not that Matthen is wrong. Several people have already pointed that out. What's interesting is the way he has gone wrong, which appears to involve taking several specific ideas for granted but also a general kind of approach to reading an unfamiliar text. I'm not sure that I could characterize that approach, but I'm reminded of it when I read Denis McManus's new book on Heidegger (which, as far as I can tell, being neither an expert nor farther in than p. 30, is excellent) and his discussion of the Theoretical Attitude. It's an approach that takes an awful lot for granted: Wittgenstein, like anyone else, can be understood easily enough even when quoted out of context; there is no need to read sentences carefully because it's obvious what kinds of things someone might say; it is also obvious what questions matter and what don't; it's obvious what kind of thing might be true (the range is limited by science and the current consensus among philosophers); of course there is no point in thinking about whether what seemingly must be true really is true; and so on. In a word: science. And in two words: not philosophy. When continental philosophers talk as if analytic philosophy has not really moved on from logical positivism I suspect it is this kind of thing they have in mind. Not that this is logical positivism, but the scientistic spirit seems much the same. (I don't mean that continental philosophy is better than analytic philosophy, if that needs to be said.) The desire to get on, to make progress (e.g. to figure out what understanding is, and to be impatient with people like Wittgenstein who seem to want to obstruct your project), works against the desire to stop and think. It strikes me as both unphilosophical and characteristic of a mentality that is dangerous. It's easy to think you're making progress just because you keep moving. (And easy, too, to think you are benign just because you are too inert to be malignant.) 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Drowning children

This article on Peter Singer and choosing how best to help others reminds me that I've been meaning to write something about Singer on the obligation to give until giving more would make us worse off than those we are trying to help. I promised something on G. A. Cohen, but find that I have nothing to say. His paper ("If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're so Rich?") is good, but has no conclusion. So I'll talk about Singer instead. I doubt I'll say anything groundbreaking, but here's what struck me most on re-reading his essay on "Famine, Affluence, and Morality."

One objection to providing food aid that he discusses is the fear that it will only temporarily help people avoid starvation, and that they will just starve a year or two later anyway, living miserable lives in the meantime. Singer says that there is very good evidence for this, so he takes it seriously. Here's his response:
It would then follow from the position reached earlier that one ought to be doing all one can to promote population control (unless one held that all forms of population control were wrong in themselves, or would have significantly bad consequences). Since there are organizations working specifically for population control, one would then support them rather than more orthodox methods of preventing famine.
This makes sense, but there is also something odd about it, it seems to me. I can imagine someone giving to, or working for, an organization that distributes contraceptives or information about birth control in poor countries. But can I imagine an affluent person giving so much to such a charity that they become poor themselves? That sounds fanatical (and vaguely racist, given where the poor countries are, and the seeming fanaticism required to want so badly to limit births in these countries). Of course Singer isn't promoting racism, but he's promoting a view that I can only imagine being held by a racist, i.e. a view that seems at least slightly crazy. It makes sense to care about people who are suffering, but I'm not sure that it makes sense to care about suffering itself. What would be the appropriate attitude to take toward pain or suffering (rather than the person or animal suffering from pain or other hardship)? Disapproval? Dislike? It's not clear to me that I can have an attitude toward pain, hardship, or death. There has to be a victim, and then my thoughts and feelings are about that victim, not the suffering itself. It is their suffering qua theirs (or someone's, at any rate) that I care about. So if they don't exist (because they haven't been born yet) then I can't really care about their possible future suffering. At least not in the same way that I care about actual suffering that is going on now. If a child is drowning then it makes sense to go to great lengths to save him. But to go to the same lengths to prevent a child who is probably going to drown from being born? Scarcely intelligible, it seems to me. Of course it is possible to care about population growth, but there is a difference that seems important to me, however dimly I might be seeing it, that Singer appears to ignore.  

Secondly, he writes as if each of us is completely independent and can spend our money as we choose. I suppose in a way that's true, but it's one thing for an affluent person with no dependents to give till it hurts, another for someone with an elderly parent or young children to care for to sacrifice some of that care for the sake of others. I don't mean that having dependents is an excuse to do nothing for victims of famine, etc., but it complicates things in ways that, again, Singer seems to overlook. In fact I don't think 'complicates' is quite the word, since we all have networks of responsibilities that don't lend themselves to utilitarian calculation. I owe something to my parents and children, and to my wife. I have a responsibility to my neighbours not to let my property fall into too much disrepair. My job requires me to wear respectable clothes. My mental health requires that I not deny myself every pleasure. And so on. Exactly how often must I mow my lawn? How much should I spend on work clothes? If I give away so much money that my children can go to college but not as good a college as I would otherwise have been able to afford is that all right? Even if we think of happiness or pleasure as something measurable and quantifiable I'm not sure that the relevant calculations could ever be done. It would be like trying to predict the weather. And I don't believe that happiness is quantifiable anyway.

Should I do more to help people in need? No doubt. But I don't need Singer's argument to tell me that. Still, it might provide a useful nudge in the right direction.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Monday, December 2, 2013


I finally saw a film by Steve McQueen last night: Hunger. Now I know what all the fuss is about. (Spoilers left and right from here on.)

Although I'm not a huge fan of the IRA (who once bombed the railway station via which I commuted to and from school in Manchester every day--luckily for me this was years after I had left both school and the Manchester area), but Bobby Sands comes across as a weird kind of saint in this film. Partly I think this is because of a kind of absence of both time and violence in the beginning of the film, which creates a certain kind of context. A context in which sainthood seems possible. What do I mean? Well, here's the absence I'm talking about. We see a man wash his bloody knuckles before we see him get them bloody, and it's not really clear whether the later scene is a flashback or whether there is just a cycle in his life of violence and cleaning up after violence. This unclarity creates a sense of spinning wheels, like a vehicle stuck in mud or snow, the wheels going round but the overall movement amounting to nothing more than a little move back (flashback?) and a little move forward (no, this is the next day), then back again. We see the same man checking his car for bombs before driving to work, but not finding any. We also see a man clutching some kind of weapon or tool, followed by a wound on another man's head, without seeing the violence between the mere holding of the weapon and the existence of the wound. We see power and suffering, that is, but the violence is only implied. It is ubiquitous, though, this invisible violence.  

After this beginning there is plenty of visible violence, mostly inside a prison, and mostly involving prisoners and what look like riot police: the few against the many, the unarmed against the armed, the naked against the uniformed, the visibly human against the machine-like, the wild against the controlling. It is hard not to sympathize with the prisoners. Christ's crucifixion with criminals is even brought up at one point, in a conversation between Sands and a priest, so martyrdom is in the air. So is nature, as a childhood trip from the city to the countryside is central to the ending of the film. Sands' hunger strike is presented as a kind of victory for the human spirit despite attempts to suffocate it.

But what kind of victory is it? We aren't given much reason to believe that the IRA's cause is just. Sands asserts that it is, or that he believes it to be. The priest he talks to (there is very little dialogue in the film apart from this conversation) sympathizes, and comments on the evils of "the Brits." But who exactly are the Brits, and what exactly have they done? Their face is the prison guards (who would be Northern Irish Protestants, of course, not people from Britain) and their voice is Margaret Thatcher, whose speeches we hear at times, without ever seeing her. "The Brits" are not really people, in other words, but a government or system, a force. It is clearly not a force for good. Its evil is far more clear in the film than is the goodness of Irish national unity. The attempt to fight an evil system by killing people, though, like the attempt to fight terror or terrorism by killing people, seems badly misguided. Understandable, but misguided.

The film shows us two other ways to fight the power. First is the dirty protest. Prisoners refuse to wear prison uniforms (which mark them as criminals rather than political prisoners) and cover as much of the prison as they can with shit and piss. Some of the smearings look like abstract expressionist art, but mostly I thought of the smell. I don't know how you could live like that and not vomit. Nasty physical reality versus something higher, less concrete, half beautiful, half insane. We oscillate between the mundane and the ideal.

The second way is Sands' hunger strike. He dies (after 66 days), as do nine other hunger strikers. So do some prison guards, who are killed during the strike (there were 16, I think, but this statistic is far harder to find online than the number of hunger strikers). As a result of which the British government gives in, quietly, to the prisoners' demands. These demands, though, mostly concern what clothes the prisoners wear. The clothes have significance--are the IRA prisoners merely criminals or not?--but it's hard to see that it is worth dying or killing over this. Especially, turning to reality outside the film, now that the IRA has more or less died out without having got the united Ireland it wanted. Sands' death was not a battle won on the way to winning the war. The war, although I suppose not quite over, has pretty much been lost. If it is ever won it will be by peaceful means. So it won't be a war that is won. And it isn't clear that it matters whether it is won or not. What seems to matter is violence, human rights, democracy, (etc.) not the locations of borders or the colours of flags. ("Imagine all the people..." Corny, but better than nationalism. And much better than nationalism-inspired terrorism.)  

And yet Sands' starving himself to death does not seem pointless. What matters is not so much what he achieves but that he refuses to give in. And it isn't what he refuses to do (wear these clothes, etc.) that matters, but his refusal to be controlled by a faceless, almost anonymous power ("the Brits"). His methods wouldn't work against any other kind of enemy. They are an assertion of humanity, especially mortality, against an inhuman force. But that sounds too trite. It's a very mysterious kind of act. What's so great about dying? What's so great about shit? It's almost the pointlessness of it all that is the point. If the goal is to achieve something then whoever has the most power wins. One way to beat power is to play a different game, a non-consequentialist game, a game that is played outside the causal nexus. If he wins at all he wins by being human. The reward is to die as a human being.