Sunday, July 5, 2009

There's no place like home-maybe

James Matthew Wilson gave a thoughtful response to my previous post (I had placed it as a comment to Caleb Stegall’s Place as Gift, Freedom on Front Porch Republic).

His reply to my question whether D’Souza was better off leaving his traditional, localized community is interesing:

Rather than leaving India to escape the “awful fate” of the professions, D’Souza
would have been better served either to submit to that discipline or to
remaining in his native community to cultivate it so that it too might find a
place for the intellectual, contemplative, life. A hard fate, but a human one.
After reading Wilson’s comment, I recalled an essay by Front Porcher Patrick Deneen titled "Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange." In that essay, Deneen looks at ancient city-states, which were rooted in memory and place, and how they functioned. It turns out they had an official office for the ‘Theorist’. Deneen writes:

[they]were charged with the task of visiting other cities, to “see” special
events such as religious or theatrical or athletic festivals, and to return to
their home city where they would then give an account of what they had seen. To
“theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey, an encounter with the “other”
in which the theorist would attempt to comprehend, assess, compare and then in
idiom of his own city, explain what had been seen to fellow citizens. This
encounter would inevitably raise questions about customs or practices of the
theorist’s own city – why do we do things this way? Might there be a better way
of organizing the regime? Might there be a best way of life?
The Theorist’s role places him in tension with his city. Deneen continues:

By this estimation, a theorist is in some respects defined by a kind of
“outsideness,” an alienation originally induced by the experience of
moving from one place to another in order to assess the virtues
and vices of
one’s own particular cultural practices.

Deneen’s essay sheds light on the fact the cave cannot be closed because the images on the wall are not all there is. The very existence of the Theorist’s office reveals to the citizens that they should not hold on to the traditions of their place too strongly. But if they do that, then how is the FP vision going to come about? Wilson tells us the citizen must “submit to the discipline” of tradition and place. Is provisional submission sufficient? Or should the citizen be permanently loyal to traditions which are mutable?

One way out of this dilemma could be to remove the Theorist’s office. I have not read anything on the Front Porch which suggests the philosopher has to have a role in their city (Tolkien, who I think would have been a Front Porcher, had no philosophers in Middle Earth either). My only concern is whether D’Souza could “cultivate it [his native community] so that it too might find a place for the intellectual, contemplative, life.” My hunch is he couldn’t because questions like “What is the best regime?” and “Why do we do things this way?” come about through an encounter with foreign practices and customs.

None of this proves the POMO Con contention that we should affirm large chunks of the modern project; however, I am suggesting that values like memory and place should not be given top billing.

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