The Strawsonian Theory of Moral Responsibility

This post will discuss Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility. It will highlight how the theory has been challenged and then argue how the Strawsonian theory is underdeveloped and not as coherent as it initially seems.

Strawson’s theory on moral responsibility outlined in “Freedom and Resentment”, focuses on the fact that he associated moral responsibility with the deployment of “reactive attitudes” and also that he articulated a specific approach in which determinism and moral responsibility could be compatible.

Strawson sets out to reconcile the on-going dispute between incompatibilists, referred to as “pessimists”, who hold a merit-based view of responsibility and compatibilists, referred to as “optimists”, who hold a consequential view of responsibility. According to Strawson both of these views are misguided and in order to find out what is missing from both accounts we need to radically change our philosophical approach. This is what Strawson refers to as the “naturalistic turn”. Strawson takes a more in depth look into what actually happens when we hold a person morally responsible and turns away from theoretical concerns about the analysis of “responsibility” and “freedom”. His methodology depends more on a descriptive account of human moral psychology and less on theoretical analysis (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson attempts to shed new light on the debate by suggesting that there are certain “reactive attitudes” that are an essential part of the “framework” of life. He argues that responsibility should in fact be understood in terms of these reactive attitudes and their associated practises rather than assuming that holding a person responsible for his or her actions rests upon a theoretical judgement of their being responsible. Reactive attitudes, Strawson states, are not susceptible to reason or rational judgement but rather are based on observation and the subsequent feelings or attitudes which follow that observation. He maintains that the reactive attitudes are merely a natural part of life and hold a vital role in the interpersonal nature of our way of life (Strawson, 1962).

The attitudes expressed in holding persons morally responsible, according to Strawson, are of a wide variety and derive from our participation in personal relationships. Some examples of these attitudes include resentment, anger, disgust, gratitude, happiness and guilt. Strawson’s compatibilism is merit-based compatibilism in which reactive attitudes are based on the perception of a person’s good will. The purpose of these attitudes, Strawson argues, is to highlight how much we care, or how much it matters to us whether the actions of others reflect, on the one hand, attitudes of good will or affection towards us or, on the other hand, malevolence or contempt (Strawson, 1962).

Thus, these attitudes can be described as participant reactive attitudes as they are considered the natural reactions of persons to the perception of another person’s will; be it good will, ill-will or indifference. Also because they are conveyed from the position of a person who engages in interpersonal relationships and who regards those to be held responsible as a participant in such relationships also. The reactive attitudes that each person has are constitutive to it even being a personal relationship (Strawson, 1962).

Although Strawson emphasises the importance of the reactive attitudes in the application of moral responsibility, he states that there are some instances where the reactive attitudes can be modified or suspended.

Firstly, one may conclude, that perhaps the offender did not, in fact, violate the demand for a reasonable degree of good will contrary to the initial perception of the action or event which took place. In this case there is no change in our attitudes towards the person but rather towards what they did, our reaction becomes action-directed. A person’s actions may be excused if something was deemed to be accidental or the so-called offender’s behaviour could be viewed as justified if that person was pursuing a greater good, for example in the case of an emergency. Thus, Strawson would say that we cannot hold these persons morally responsible due to the fact that they have not reflected a poor “quality of will” (Strawson, 1962).

Secondly, in certain circumstances one may abandon the participant perspective in relation to the person in question and instead adopt an objective viewpoint. In such cases as these the individual is regarded as incapable of participating in interpersonal relationships whether for a short period of time or permanently.  For one to possess the ability to be regarded as morally responsible, Strawson’s theory suggests, one must have the capacity to fit into the social practises, in this case the interpersonal relationships, which govern the deployment of the reactive attitudes, and if one is incapable of doing so then one cannot be regarded as morally responsible. The individual, thus, is regarded as morally or psychologically abnormal or underdeveloped. The application of an objective perspective is associated with very young children and also those who are suffering from a severe mental illness (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson, throughout “Freedom and Resentment”, also questions what kind of influence the truth of the thesis of determinism would have on our personal “reactive attitudes”, if any at all. Although he does not define exactly what he means by the thesis of determinism, it is apparent that determinism is part of a thoroughly objective account of the world and therefore requires one to adopt an entirely objective attitude to all events or actions that take place. Strawson questions whether an acceptance of the thesis of determinism could lead to the repudiation of our reactive attitudes (Strawson, 1962)

Strawson suggests, as stated previously, that reactive attitudes are central to our interpersonal relationships and are the basis for holding persons morally responsible. He argues that the truth of determinism would not affect our reactive attitudes as it is almost impossible for us to believe that a general theoretical conviction would change our world so entirely that such things as interpersonal relationships and reactive attitudes, as we know them, would no longer exist. He states that this is due to the fact that our commitment to these ordinary interpersonal relationships is too strong. He states that it is practically inconceivable that we take an objective attitude towards everyone as we have a “natural commitment” to our reactive attitudes. We would not be human if we suspended these emotions as they are what make us human. Even if you rationally believe that everyone is determined to do what they do you cannot suspend your feelings as they are an inherent part of human nature. In this instance, according to Strawson, it is possible for moral responsibility and determinism to be compatible (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility however has been subject to certain challenges. Watson argues, for example, in “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil”, that Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility seems to lead to a paradox. Strawon’s theory, according to Watson, suggests that great evil should count as its own excuse. If this is the case then the person who carried out the evil act could not be held morally responsible for their actions (Watson, 2004).

Watson argues that, according to Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility, in order to be perceived as a member of the interpersonal moral community one must have the ability to be seen as a prospective interlocutor in our interpersonal exchanges. He explains that we only have the ability to address persons inside the moral community if they understand both our demands and reactions. This understanding, Watson argues, appears to require a common moral framework of values for our interactions (Watson, 2004).

Watson uses the 1982 case of Robert Harris who brutally murdered two teenagers in order to use their car for a bank robbery as an example to back up his point. Watson states that by way of his behaviour Harris should be a clear contender for blame. However, if a condition of moral agency is participation within the moral community then evil individuals whose behaviour disregards the values of moral community altogether should fail to be considered moral agents and because of this lie outside the scope of our ascriptions to responsibility (Watson, 2004).

By their own evil manner, Watson argues, they do not share the moral framework of values, and therefore cannot be seen as prospective interlocutors within the moral community. If Strawson’s theory suggests that moral responsibility is constituted by the relations within the framework of the moral community then it seems, Watson argues, that extreme evil should, in fact, be its own excusing condition, in the sense that the person is incapable of taking part in ordinary interpersonal relationships (Watson, 2004).

However, if the perpetrators of extreme evil acts are to be deemed morally responsible then it seems as though responsibility does not require one to be a member of the moral community. Watson’s argument seems to undermine Strawon’s theory slightly as Strawson believes that attitudes and feelings are only significant within the moral community, however, if individuals who commit extreme evil are both non-members of the moral community but also responsible then it seems that moral responsibility is  not solely constituted by the moral community (Watson, 2004).

The Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility cannot easily defend itself against the challenge posed by Watson and that is why McKenna, in response to this challenge, has proposed a slight modification to the theory. McKenna states that by explaining responsible moral agency in terms of capacity for membership of the moral community, rather than just actual membership, then Strawson’s naturalist insight can be preserved. In other words, one has the ability to be held morally responsible for one’s actions even if one is not a member of the moral community so long as one has the capacity to be a member. McKenna maintains that Strawson’s intention was to capture the entire range of concepts pertaining to moral responsibility from within the “web” of feelings and attitudes in the interpersonal community; however, his alteration now allows some non-members to become morally responsible agents. That status is now, however, dependent on one’s ability to take part in the moral community if one is not already a member (McKenna, 1998).

McKenna’s alteration to the Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility now allows Strawson’s theory to respond to the challenge posed by Watson. It may be argued that Harris, although not a member of the moral community according to Watson, has or had the ability to become a member of the moral community but chose not to become one. It could be said that Harris knew what he was doing, knew it was morally wrong and knew that it did not meet with the demands for good will or regard reflected in the ordinary reactive attitudes which are an essential part of the moral community, therefore consciously rejecting membership of the moral community. Hence, even though Harris or another person who commits an extreme evil action may reject membership of the moral community the sheer fact that they had the ability to be members, McKenna would argue, allows us to still hold them morally responsible for their actions (McKenna, 1998).

Strawson’s theory on the surface appears to be an entirely coherent account of moral responsibility; however, when presented with challenges such as Watson’s we see that in fact the theory is underdeveloped. Strawson’s theory, I believe, builds a solid foundation for an alternative approach to understanding moral responsibility. However, it is clear that in order to make it a stronger and more coherent theory it needs to be slightly modified. McKenna’s minor alteration to the theory was essential to combating the problem of the paradox which arose when discussing extreme evil cases. Strawson’s theory fell short in being able to explain how person’s in these cases could be deemed morally responsible when they existed outside the lines of the moral community. With McKenna’s slight modification to Strawson’s theory, allowing those who have the capacity to be members of the moral community to be deemed morally responsible and not just those within the moral community, persons who commit acts of extreme evil are no longer exempt from being deemed morally responsible.

I also believe that morality is a culturally conditioned response and that our reactive attitudes are not unavoidable and permanent features of human nature as Strawson would suggest, but rather involve a set of expectations and dispositions which are socially acquired. However, Strawson’s theory does not seem to allow for this kind of assumption. Strawson appears to assume that all of us have the same moral framework i.e. the same notions of what is right and what is wrong and his theory does not seem allow for cultural variations. Strawson believes that most of us are part of a moral community within which we engage in interpersonal relationships and have similar reactive attitudes. He states that in order to belong to the moral community we each have to understand the basic demands for good will and the reactions which follow certain actions. However, I argue that if our beliefs of what is morally right and wrong vary significantly from culture to culture then how can Strawson argue that we are part of a moral community at all?

Strawson’s argument relating to the “appropriateness of emotional response” falls short in being able to defend his theory in relation to the fact that morality is, I believe, a culturally conditioned response. Strawson argues that our reactive attitudes should be in concert with each other and that emotions should be consistent between people. He states that in order to avoid idiosyncrasies we have the ability to communicate. He believes that if our emotional responses or feelings are deemed completely absurd after we communicate with other people then it is possible to evaluate these reactions upon reflection. He then states that we have the ability to alter or modify them so that our emotional responses, i.e. our reactive attitudes, are in concert with everyone else’s. This, however, appears to me to be a near impossible task as it makes the assumption that each one of us is part of the same moral community, with the same moral notions.

There are many different perceptions in the world of what is morally right and what is morally wrong. If something in another culture is deemed morally acceptable however is viewed as morally unacceptable behaviour in another culture then how are both cultures meant to communicate and modify their reactions accordingly?

For example in Singapore it is deemed morally acceptable for a figure of authority to cane a male student, however in Ireland it is viewed as morally unacceptable. Therefore, the reactive attitudes would vary significantly between an Irish person and a Singaporean person to the caning of a male student because of their culture. It is near impossible for both cultures to communicate and modify their responses to be in concert with eachother. How does one culture explain to another that their actions and beliefs are morally unacceptable when they are and always have been of the belief that what they are doing is morally right?

The inability of Strawson’s theory to respond to both Watson’s argument and my own argument further suggests that while Strawson’s theory lays the groundwork for a new approach to understanding moral responsibility it is not entirely coherent. His theory, as it stands, appears overly simplistic and does not make clear who belongs to the moral community and who is exempt. It is clear that McKenna’s modification was necessary in order for Strawson’s theory to even begin to be able to tackle the challenge posed by Watson. In conclusion Strawson’s theory on moral responsibility is underdeveloped and while it remains a solid foundation for an alternative philosophical approach to addressing moral responsibility it cannot defend itself against certain challenges and I believe that modification and alteration of the theory are necessary in order for it to become fully coherent.

Power, Knowledge, Right – Michel Foucault

This post will aim to describe and explain the relations between power, knowledge and right evident throughout the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

Foucault is critical of traditional theories of power, such as the Marxist and non-Marxist theories, which he believes are guilty of a certain economism in their analysis of power (Smart, 1985). In his first lecture at the College de France in 1976 he suggests that in the juridical/liberal theories of power, power is viewed as something that can be acquired, like a commodity, and can be exchanged from one person to another through a contractual act (Foucault, 2003). Foucault however seeks a non-economist analysis of power (Smart, 1985). The juridical/liberal theories of power understand power as repressive and Foucault states that this idea of power needs to be rethought and the mechanisms of power need to be seen as facilitating something more than just repression (Foucault, 2003).

In his second lecture at the College de France in 1976 Foucault questions how power is exercised. In order to understand the mechanisms of power Foucault establishes two limits; the first relates to the rules of right that formally delimit power and the second relates to the effects of truth or knowledge produced and transmitted by power, and which in turn reproduce this power. Therefore, Foucault states we have a triangle of power, right and knowledge (Foucault, 2003).

Foucault states that the traditional question of political philosophy in relation to power is how is the “discourse of truth” able to set “limits to the rights of power?” However Foucault, in contrast, now questions “what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of discourses of truth?” (Foucault, 2003:93)

In Western societies since the Middle Ages, Foucault argues, where relations between power and right are concerned, the elaboration of legal thought has centred around royal power. Foucault states that “right in the West is the King’s right” (Foucault, 2003:94) or the right of royal command. The legal system of Western societies, the discourse of right, was originally formed around the royal personage for the benefit of royal power. Later it developed to set limits on this sovereign power (Smart, 1985). The king, however, is central to the organisation of the legal system in the West and the focus of discourse is to either justify the sovereign’s power as befitted his fundamental right or to impose limits on sovereign power, submitting it to rules of right (Foucault, 2003).

Foucault believes that right, in this sense, is an instrument used to dominate and that the relations of power are in fact hidden by the discourse of right. Foucault believes that we have to get around the problem of sovereignty, which is central to the theory of right, and the obedience of the individuals who submit to it and to reveal the problem of domination and subjugation instead of sovereignty and obedience. In Truth and Power Foucault emphasises that we need a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the theory of sovereignty and in order to do this he states that we need to cut off the king’s head (Foucault, 1980). In order to reveal the relations of power hidden by the discourse of right Foucault observed the following five methodological precautions.

The first precaution relates to Foucault’s argument that the analysis of power should not be concerned with power in its central location, for example the sovereign, but rather in its extremities where power overcomes the rules of right. Foucault, rather than questioning who has the right to wield power, questions how power is embodied in the institutions at a local and regional level. Thus, Foucault argues that power should no longer be viewed as a force exercised from above based on universal right but rather we should concern ourselves with where the exercise of power becomes less and less juridical; where power becomes “capillary” (Foucault, 2003:94).

The second precaution relates to Foucault’s belief that we should eliminate studies of power “from its internal point of view” and look at “its real and institutional effects” (Foucault, 2003:97) He is not concerned with the reasons behind the pursuit of power or the intentions behind it but rather is interested in how power itself works.

Foucault’s interest lies in the relation between power and right and how discourses of right, by means of subjugation, coerce our bodies and govern our gestures.

Foucault’s third precaution suggests that power should not be considered as one person’s or institution’s authority over all others, but rather power should be analysed as something that circulates. It is “employed and exercised through a net-like organisation” (Foucault, 2003:98). Individuals, he states, are the vehicles of power, they don’t just experience it but also transfer power; they are not just objects undergoing power but also the agents exercising power.

To explain, Foucault states that in any society there are many relations of power which make up the social body and power cannot be exercised without certain discourses of truth. He states that “We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” (Foucault, 2003:93).  In other words the way power is wielded is through discourses of truth which first have to be validated by a learned community. To have knowledge, Foucault argues, is to have the ability to make certain statements pass among others as true (Allen, 1999). The community decides what can be regarded as knowledge, therefore power, and what cannot. Power thus circulates throughout society and both creates and is governed by the accepted local practises and discourses within that particular society. One cannot escape power, Foucault argues, power can only be negotiated and resisted from within a local context. Thus, rights are also viewed from a local context and relate specifically to the individual in question rather than the “rights of men” (Gavin, 2009).

The fourth precaution centres on the idea of conducting an ascending analysis of power. The mistake of other theories, Foucault suggests, is that they analyse power deductively. Foucault looks at power in the lower-levels, such as discipline in prisons and schools, and observes how it has extended to the higher level; how the accepted discourses of truth and knowledge at the lower level of society is applied to more “general mechanisms” in order to serve “forms of global domination” (Foucault, 2003:99).

An example used by Foucault to support his ascending analysis of power is madness. In Madness and Civilisation Foucault highlights how madmen were excluded due to the fact that their idleness posed a threat to bourgeois society where labour was the most significant value (Foucault, 2001). Accepted forms of discourse of knowledge allow the distinction to be made between what is normal and what is abnormal, thus those who lie outside the realm of the norm are subject to power and punishment in that they are excluded from society. At the higher levels of society, according to Gutting, they are not interested in such matters as madness but rather the ways in which the lower-level have developed mechanisms of exclusion as they can then apply this to a more general form of domination; a general form of domination which is politically useful (Gutting, 2005).

The fifth and final precaution centres on Foucault’s argument that power and its mechanisms are not in fact products of ideology. The production of ideology coexists within the machinery of power however ideology does not shape them. Foucault argues that mechanisms of power would be unable to function unless knowledge apparatuses were created, organised and made to circulate, and states that these knowledge apparatuses are not ideological constructs (Foucault, 2003).

Foucault’s methodological precautions steer analyses of power away from traditional juridical/liberal theories, theories centred on the sovereign and the state, to a consideration of the mechanisms of power and domination which began to emerge during the eighteenth century. The new mechanism of power was exercised over bodies via a new system of surveillance and by utilising the subjected body through material coercions. This new form of power is known as disciplinary power; a form of punishment closely linked to power and knowledge relations which, through objectification, form human beings as subjects, for example criminals, and also make them objects of knowledge for the human sciences (Smart, 1985).

Discipline can be understood in two ways; firstly as the physical act of discipline, a negative force associated with punishment, and secondly a set of abilities we need to have in order to be recognised and appreciated within a particular area of society, these are seen as a positive force. Through Foucault’s concept of power and knowledge the two ways that discipline is understood can be connected. Knowledge, Foucault argues, is something that makes us a subject because in order for us to make sense of ourselves, to classify ourselves, we must have the ability to refer back to various forms of knowledge. However, to be a part of a certain system we are also allowing ourselves to be subject to judgement, surveillance and for our attitudes to be moulded in a certain way. In this way the power of discipline and knowledge have a specific relationship in that they “make” us who we are (Danagher, Shirato, Webb, 2000).

Foucault argues that as our understanding of ourselves and our lives is always filtered through and influenced by the discourses, ideas and institutions that constitute society there is in fact no true state of existence. An example of one of the institutions Foucault refers to is that of is the penal system. In Discipline and Punish Foucault describes the change that occurred in the penal system between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Torture of the body and public executions gave way to the incarceration of criminals who were put through disciplinary programmes and routines and regulated by surveillance (Foucault, 1977). It was now the soul, conceptualised in terms of psyche, character, consciousness and individuality, rather than the physical body that was subject to punishment (Smart, 1985). The change was representative of a new relationship between power, knowledge and right.

The changes that occurred in the penal system were less to do with making criminals aware of their bad behaviour and more to do with creating a ‘subject’ who could be identified and subsequently treated as a prisoner. Foucault’s idea of the subject and its relation to power and knowledge is highlighted by Rabinow in The Foucault Reader. Foucault establishes that there are three modes of objectification of a subject. These include dividing practises, scientific classifications and subjectification. The first mode of objectification, dividing practises, centres on the idea of categorisation and manipulation as discussed previously in relation to the subject in Discipline and Punish. In the dividing practises “the subject is objectified by a process of division either within himself or from others” (Foucault, 1984: 8). The second mode of objectification is scientific classification and it is based on how science classifies the individual as the subject of language, labour and life. However, Foucault’s most original contribution, according to Rabinow, is the third mode of objectification and that is the idea of subjectification. Subjectification relates to the way individuals subjectify themselves (Foucault, 1984).

Foucault’s idea of subjectification relates to Bentham’s idea of the ‘Panopticon’. The model of the Panopticon is a tower placed in a central location within a prison in order for the guards to be able to observe each cell and its occupants at any given time (Foucault, 1977). It was designed in a way that the prisoners would be unable to know whether they were being observed at a particular time or not. Prisoners however would know that they could be observed at any moment and so would modify their behaviour accordingly (Danagher, Shirato, Webb, 2000).

The idea of this authoritive gaze did not remain confined to the prison however, but moved through various institutional areas in society, for example, teachers use it as they move about the classroom and surveillance techniques have become fundamental to life in western societies. The gaze, however, also becomes a way of looking at ourselves. We become the subject of our own gaze and we constantly monitor our bodies, what we do and how we feel (Danagher, Shirato, Webb, 2000). Power is no longer a force bearing down from above but rather is wielded in the form of self-regulation. Individuals strive to live by the accepted knowledge of what constitutes a ‘norm’ within society and thus modify themselves in order to remain in accordance with these accepted ‘norms’.

The prison thus does not lie on the margins of society to cater for those who have been expelled from it but rather it extends in a variety of ways throughout society. The rest of society modelled itself on the modern prison with schools, factories and even hospitals being modelled on the prison; the mode of punishment becomes the model of control for society.

The three techniques of control at the centre of Foucault’s modern disciplinary society include hierarchical control, normalising judgement and examination. Hierarchical control assumes a mechanism that coerces by way of observation. Normalising judgement is essentially the punishment of non-conformity which disciplinary power aims to correct. Discipline, in this instance, not only punishes but rewards providing privileges for good conduct and penalties for bad conduct (Smart, 1985). The third technique of control is a key example of Foucault’s power/knowledge relationship as it combines “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth” (Foucault, 1997: 184). The examination combines both hierarchical observation and normalising judgement by producing truths about those who undergo examination and by controlling behaviour. The examination produces truths about the person who undergoes the examination, in the case of a school or university they find out what the person knows. The examination also controls their behaviour by way of making them do something, in this case study. Foucault believes that power and knowledge are closely related as knowing allows one to exert control and by control one has the ability to know.

In conclusion we see that Foucault’s conception of power greatly differs from that of traditional juridical/liberal theories. Power is not something that can be acquired and used as an oppressive force, it is not something exercised by a higher authority as a means of control; power, to Foucault, is  something productive that extends beyond the limits of the sovereign or the state. Power produces what we believe to be our reality through knowledge however knowledge is also produced by power i.e. power cannot exist without the discourses produced within a society; but power also governs the creation of these discourses. Foucault argues that one is incapable of escaping power and in fact power can only be negotiated or resisted from within a local context. Thus, rights are based on the experience of the individual in question rather than appealing to a universal context and the “rights of men”. The relations of power, knowledge and right are a central theme in much of Foucault’s work and are fundamental, he would argue, in understanding how power actually works.

Harold Pinter’s play “The Birthday Party”

The ‘theatre of the absurd’, a term coined by the critic Martin Esslin in 1961, is used to describe the new style of theatre which developed following the Second World War. The concept refers to the plays of the 1950s and 1960s which centre on the notion that life is illogical, without purpose and devoid of meaning (Esslin, 1980).

Harold Pinter, according to Esslin, is one of the defining playwrights of the movement and like other playwrights at this time, such as Samuel Beckett, Pinter wants to communicate the enigmatic and problematic nature of human existence. Esslin states that however realistic the situations which arise appear to be, Pinter’s plays are essentially reflections on, and allegories of, the human condition. (Esslin,1963). Pinter emphasises the instability and comfortlessness of the human condition.

This post discusses Esslin’s assertion in relation to Pinter’s play The Birthday Party (1958). Pinter’s play centres on the life of the main protagonist Stanley Webber, an unemployed pianist, who, for the last year, has been living as a lodger with Meg and Petey Boles in their sea-side boarding house. Stanley is living in idle seclusion away from the outside world. However, the relatively peaceful, domestic atmosphere of the boarding house is disturbed by the intrusion of two unknown characters, Goldberg and McCann. The two men are “agents” of an “organisation” and have come to claim Stanley (Pinter, 1991). The characters in the play prior to the arrival of Goldberg and McCann are described by Malkin as a representation of domestic banality (Malkin, 1992). The dialogue in the opening scene between Petey and Meg is filled with inane questions asked by Meg followed by Petey’s monosyllabic answers:

MEG You got your paper?
MEG Is it good?
PETEY Not bad.
MEG What does it say?
PETEY Nothing much.

However the idiom changes drastically with the arrival of Goldberg and McCann and it is not long before the dialogue begins to breakdown (Malkin, 1992).

Stanley is subjected to a strange and disturbing cross-examination by the men. Pinter adopts stichomythia, a form of dramatic dialogue, during the interrogation scene where both Goldberg and McCann alternate in asking Stanley questions that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, all of which lack intelligible meaning (Silverstein, 1994). The language of nonsense is used abusively as Stanley is tortured with illogical questions. For example:

MCCANN What about the Albigensenist heresy?
GOLDBERG Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?
MCCANN What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett? 

The men’s interrogation of Stanley continues throughout the party itself which finally dissolves into a series of violent acts. Pinter’s dialogue is made up of incorrect syntax, tedious repetitions and also contradictions. Goldberg and McCann’s questions and statements are a combination of distorted clichés and idioms (Prentice, 2000). Dukore suggests that the linguistic absurdity present in The Birthday Party (1958) may suggest the absurdity of the human condition (Dukore, 1982). Through dialogue Pinter displays the inadequacy of the words we use in our everyday speech and how language itself has become an insufficient and defective tool for communication (Malkin, 1992).

The nature of language and dialogue is also central to the theme of menace in The Birthday Party (1958). The dramatic image of Pinter’s play is based on the individual search for security in a world filled with unease, fear, and lack of understanding between people (Esslin, 1963). The uneasiness and anxiety in The Birthday Party (1958) arise from the threat of invasion from the outside menacing world. When Stanley learns of the two men who will be coming to stay in the boarding house his initial reaction is one of shock and fear of that which is unfamiliar. When speaking to Meg he is quick to try to falsify her claims maintaining that the men will not come (Pinter, 1991). However, Pinter states that in the world we live in, as in the world of his plays, everything is uncertain and we are surrounded by the unknown; it is because of this we are constantly fearful of an invasion from that which is unfamiliar (Esslin, 1980).

The mysterious and unfamiliar presents itself in The Birthday Party (1958) in the form of the external world, personified by Goldberg and McCann, which intrudes on what seems to be Stanley’s safe and secure environment in the Bole’s boarding house. Goldberg and McCann embody the theme of menace in that they threaten to disturb, with language as their weapon, what is familiar and constant in Stanley’s life.

Dukore suggests that the fear of menace present in Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) may suggest the absurdity of the human condition, for Stanley, like all of mankind feels insecure and unsafe without certainties in his universe (Dukore, 1982). Stanley, like mankind, is fearful that what lies beyond the confines of his comfortable environment is threatening and hostile. Without knowledge man would grow more terrified of the surrounding world and I believe the purpose of this play is to highlight just that. Our quest for knowledge has limitations and in a bid to diminish the fear of the strange and unfamiliar what Pinter is perhaps trying to convey is that there will always be an unknown.

Esslin argues that Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) may also be interpreted as an allegory surrounding the nature of conformity. By using language as a weapon, Stanley, the pianist, the solitary and individual artist, is forced to confine to the ways of Goldberg and McCann (Esslin, 1980). The morning following The Birthday Party (1958), during which Stanley was subjected to further taunts from McCann, left unable to speak and reduced to a manic state of laughter, the “agents” bombard him with an extensive list of his faults and specify the benefits of submitting to their influence:

MCCANN Now you’re even more cockeyed.
GOLDBERG It’s true. You’ve gone from bad to worse.
MCCANN Worse than worse.

Goldberg and McCann are insistent that they bring Stanley to see Monty however Petey is not entirely convinced. He suggests that as Stanley is a guest in his boarding house he should be the one to look after him. However, the “agents” state that Monty is the finest there is and they subsequently offer to take Mr. Boles also. The final line that Petey speaks to Stanley, Pinter has described as being one of the most important lines he has ever written (Merritt, 1995):

PETEY Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!

Perhaps, Pinter is commenting on the farcical nature of society and its blind adherence to conform to social norms. Stanley has lost every ounce of his individuality; he is even dressed like Goldberg and McCann wearing a dark, well cut suit and white shirt (Pinter, 1991). Perhaps Stanley’s glasses, now broken in his hands having been damaged at the party by McCann, are symbolic of this blindness. Even Goldberg, in the final moments of the play before taking Stanley away, admits to feeling uneasy. He reflects on his despair and criticises the way he himself was made into the person that he is now by the strict established disciplines of society and the world and also questions his own state of being:

GOLDBERG What do you think, I’m a self-made man? No! I sat where I was told to sit. I kept my eye on the ball.

Goldberg and McCann’s obedience to authority reflect that of Stanley’s initial rejection of, and rebellion, against it. Both parties automatically attack what does not conform to their sense of self (Prentice, 2000). However, in Act Three of the play we witness a re-birth of Stanley, a man no longer autonomous who has been re-created in the image of the all-powerful Other (Silverstein, 1994). Pinter here is perhaps alluding to the fallibility of man’s identity, how each of us lacks the ability to achieve a genuine and unalterable self as we are all products of the environment in which we immerse ourselves. Stanley’s once sheltered abode became occupied by Goldberg and McCann and if one views the change in Stanley on an allegorical level it is perhaps commenting on the farcical nature of conformity in society. Stanley’s transformation could be a reflection on society itself and how people strive to fit in to social norms, whether it is their true identity or a portrayal of a false façade.

In conclusion, I agree with Esslin’s assertion about the nature of Pinter’s play, in that one can view The Birthday Party (1958) as holding a mirror up to society revealing the problematic and enigmatic nature of the human condition. Language in Pinter’s play it seems has lost all importance and semantic power and instead becomes a weapon of destruction. The play seeks to highlight the limitations of our everyday speech in order for us to understand the often nonsensical nature of our means of communication. Limitations of language become apparent and language becomes insufficient when one is in search for truths surrounding the human condition and that, it seems, is what this play is trying to convey. The menacing nature of what is unknown and man’s fear of the uncertainty in the play also aims to reflect on the nature of man’s situation in the world. There will always be evidence of an unknown as our knowledge is limited and there will forever be something which is uncertain. The farcical nature of man’s quest for knowledge, as shown in the play, is that man will never achieve a full understanding of all that is around him. It is apparent also that The Birthday Party (1958) as an allegory of conformity seeks to portray the farcical and pointless nature of man’s adherence to social norms, but also to perhaps suggest that conformity is near impossible to avoid. Pinter, as Esslin argues, in his play The Birthday Party (1958) successfully portrays the volatility and bleakness which surrounds the human condition.

The Beat Generation

The Beat Generation was a group of writers from the United States who came to prominence in the years following the Second World War. The writers of this generation found themselves questioning both the politics and culture of time, rejecting the conventional way of life of the 1950s and instead creating their own sub-culture. The so-called ‘Beat’ culture centred on experimentation with narcotics and alternative sexuality, interest in unconventional Eastern religions such as Buddhism and an outright rejection of materialism.

By defying traditional methods of writing the Beat Writers believed that it would inspire people to begin to think differently about life in America. In an interview with Trent Harris conducted in 1979, Allen Ginsberg, a notable figure of the Beat generation, quoted Plato by stating that “when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake”. The Beat writers were a social force who intended to inspire change and Ginsberg believed that by introducing a new rhythm for people to hear, by defying traditional writing methods, it would prompt a new way of thinking which in turn would affect external political forms.


Ginsberg was of the belief that your “first thought” was your “best thought” as it resulted in authentic and fearless writing. He viewed it as a way of “telling the truth”. Ginsberg rejected the traditional meter of iambic pentameter and instead adopted the varying rhythms of everyday speech. Ginsberg was also influenced by the Buddhist form of meditation known as shamatha during which one’s main focus is on one’s breathing. Ginsberg believed that it led to a calming of the mind and a sharper awareness of imagination and thought. He was of the opinion that modern poetry should reject prescribed rhythm and meter and instead should record true life experience.

Ginsberg and other Beat poets used the new poetic form in order to share Eastern philosophy, inspire sexual freedom and encourage opposition to the situation of American society in the 1950s. The new poetic form was a way for the modern poet to challenge the conformity and conservative nature of the so-called “Silent Generation” of the 1950s.

Sunflower Sutra, a poem written by Ginsberg in 1955, was inspired by the free verse style of writing. The sunflower in Ginsberg’s poem is representative of America, a place that has been blemished, ruined and devastated by the thoughtless work of society. Ginsberg uses natural imagery to depict the industrial blight, they sit “surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of machinery.” The image of the sunflower elicits a memory of one of the most important artistic movements of Ginsberg’s career which occurred when Ginsberg was a young man living in New York.  One day while reading Ah! Sunflower he experienced an auditory hallucination of William Blake.

The poem is a reflection on the American dream of industry and materiality and how it has tarnished the environment around him. Ginsberg, however, transforms the sunflower into a symbol of perfect beauty and shows how America has the ability to redeem itself and become beautiful once more. Ginsberg saw himself in line with the Romantic poets and aimed to show this beauty to a country he believed had been left to rot and decay.

Ginsberg reflects on the corrupt nature of industry and corporation and the brutality of warfare stating how these things are intrinsically bad however the people of America have the ability to seek redemption, people to Ginsberg are but “beautiful golden sunflowers”.  The message of the poem is one of hope and Ginsberg highlights how the American people “are not skin of grime…we’re all golden sunflowers inside”.

The Beat generation believed that their writing could inspire a cultural revolution and it is clear that they had a large influence on change in Western culture.

Banksy: Art that Speaks

Quite often graffiti artists are identified as vandals who defile public and private property and it is apparent that graffiti is deemed a controversial art form that continues to create conflict between law officials and the artists who want to exhibit their work in public locations.

Though I do agree that certain forms of graffiti, such as tagging, are a blot on the landscape I am a great admirer of street art that conveys the thoughts and feelings of the artist who created it.

One cannot, nowadays, mention the term ‘street art’ without mentioning ‘Banksy’. He is, and forever will be, one of my favourite street artists whose work is inspirational and thought-provoking, yet somewhat controversial.

In 2005, Banksy visited Israel’s West Bank barrier. Reaching nearly eight metres in height the barrier is deemed necessary for security by the Israelis against Palestinian terrorism, however for Palestinians it is known as the “separation” or “segregation” wall.  For Palestinians the wall has become a blank canvas on which they write messages and construct images reflecting their day-to-day struggles and feelings of imprisonment (Leuenberger, 2011).

Though the paintings on the wall created by Banksy are not explicitly political in nature, his opinion surrounding the barriers existence is made apparent in the following statement:

“The Israeli government is building a wall surrounding the occupied Palestinian territories. It stands three times the height of the Berlin Wall and will eventually run for over 700km – the distance from London to Zurich. The wall is illegal under international law and essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.” – Banksy  (Jones, 2005)

The painting of the young girl looking upwards, floating, suspended above the ground only by balloons is, in my opinion, one of Banksy’s most beautiful creations.

Banksy in Palestine

The street artist is known for being quite reserved and rarely comments on the meaning behind his work; this leaves a lot of his paintings open to interpretation and it seems the mystery surrounding each creation only adds to the allure.

‘The Girl with the Balloons’, as it is situated on the Palestinian side of the West Bank wall, could represent hope; hope that one day the Palestinians will be able to overcome the segregation imposed by the barrier that stands in their way. Also, it is clear that the girl is a child perhaps signifying that it will be the children who will overcome these obstacles in the future, where they will finally be able to escape the prison to which they are now confined.

Whatever the true meaning behind Banksy’s painting, it is clear that the message is a positive one and I for one cannot wait for his next masterpiece.

Electronic Scholarly Editions – Kenneth Price



“Mere digitizing produces information; in contrast, scholarly editing produces knowledge.”

This quote sums up Price’s entire article. He is arguing that the mere digitization of texts allows us to see the text similarly to the way it would be presented to us in print form; electronic scholarly editions however allow us to engage in closer reading with the text by providing the reader access to much more than just the final product.

Price, in the article “Electronic Scholarly Editions”, states that the reason people are making electronic scholarly editions is due to their capaciousness. There is no longer a limit to what a scholar can “fit on a page or afford to produce within the economics of print publishing”.

With sufficient resources, a group of scholars has the ability to create an edition of immense quality with multiple layers of information; an edition that reveals much more than just the final product. The ability to include the material scholars worked from in order to create the edition is something I find extremely interesting. The reader/audience is not only introduced to the final piece of text/the finished work but rather can experience what went into the creation of that work as scholars can include audio and video clips, high-quality colour reproductions of art works, and interactive maps.The electronic scholarly edition thus seems to be a gateway into a new world of textual experience.

One has the ability to completely immerse themselves in the text and perhaps even the thought-process of the author/poet if multiple editions are available to view side-by-side. It is not surprising then that electronic editions have deepened interest in the nature of textuality itself.

Price states that a great deal of twentieth-century editing, and many centuries before, was based solely on finding an authoritative text based on “final intentions”. However, there tends to be numerous versions of particular texts. It’s quite astonishing that with new developments in electronic editing we may have to ability to view all versions of certain texts, specifically those deemed valuable. Price emphasises the ability of authors to take complete ownership of their work in that they have the ability to edit their piece, add in their thought-process and highlight the changes made and subsequently why they were made.

However, one must also question whether the purity of an edition can be spoiled if there are no restrictions and no limitations on the amount of changes that can be made to that particular edition. If something can be altered indefinitely then does it eventually lose all of its original quality?

Price highlights that electronic scholarly edition is an enterprise that relies heavily on the collaboration of many people. Significant digital projects cannot be undertaken alone and editors, he states, now have to deal with more issues than they would have previously with print. Collaboration with technical experts is necessary in this field of work as knowledge of technical issues is required to make collaboration successful. Electronic editing thus can be a daunting task but it is also a field of neverending possibility.

Price also suggests that because software and hardware are constantly changing and advancing, it is important that electronic scholarly editions adhere to international standards. Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), he explains, will eventually be XML only. XML, or extensible markup language, is often referred to as the “acid-free paper of the digital age”. This is due to the fact that it is platform-independent and not protected by trademark or patent or copyright is has the ability to meet the demands of long-term electronic preservation.

XML allows editors to determine which part of the text is important or of major interest by tagging or labelling the specific area of text with something known as a markup. XML allows for flexibility. In the case of the Walt Whitman Archive structural features of the manuscript are tagged. For example where there line breaks, stanzas and even where Whitman himself had made revisions to the text.

Thus, the electronic scholarly edition allows one to engage with the text in a way that is unavailable in print. It is no longer only what is on the surface that is deemed important but also what lies beneath the surface.

Price argues that traditional boundaries are blurring before our eyes and now publishers, librarians and scholars increasingly take on overlapping functions. While some may see this as negative, Price highlights that it allows extensive room for creativity. People from different areas of work can provide their own interpretation of texts, sometimes varying significantly from one another.

The electronic scholarly edition is contributing to the democratisation of learning; people worldwide with a web browser now have access to an extensive range of material that was once hidden away. We now have an extremely large library available at our finger tips-something I believe we should take advantage of and appreciate immensely.