All 2 entries tagged Genius

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September 29, 2009

Does Genius Excuse Crime? Another Angle on the Polanski Case

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The celebrated and notorious film-maker Roman Polanski has been re-arrested in Zurich for having sexually abused a drugged-out 13-year old girl 32 years ago in the United States, a crime for which he was convicted but he skipped the country before serving time. Nobody has denied that the criminal act occurred. The question is what to make of it now. What is striking is that the artistic community across the world has been virtually unanimous in calling for Polanski’s release, whereas virtually everyone else (though not the victim) wants him to pay for his crime – if not more.

What accounts for this vast difference in sentiment? Well, Polanski is a genius! Let’s assume that this claim is not only true but also relevant to judging his case. How would it be relevant? From his artistic defenders, you might think it has something to do with the quality of his cinematic output. Perhaps we’re supposed to think that Polanski served his prison time by creating great art, which more than makes up for the original heinous act: Community service on a grand scale, if you will.

The only – but crucial – difference, of course, is that Polanski wasn’t coerced by the legal system to create this great art. He just happened to luck out in being that sort of artist. A porn film producer who committed a comparable act, even if his films had bigger box office takings than Polanski’s, would not enjoy comparable sympathy. The late ethicist Bernard Williams, who popularized the phrase ‘moral luck’, actually justified this way of looking at things that would now keep Polanski out of prison.

However, that can’t be right. Is genius nothing but a kind of miracle? On the contrary, I think ‘genius’ should be treated much more literally. After all, ‘genius’ refers primarily to the artist’s state of mind, not his or her output. In cases like Polanski’s, it makes most sense as the flipside of mental deficiency, possessors of which are also often given leniency in rape cases, either because one was too dumb or too crazy to have a fully functioning moral compass -- to put not too fine point on it. But of course one needs to prove mental deficiency in court, which is not always easy. But why not the same for genius? Polanski’s defenders should welcome the opportunity to have his genius demonstrated in a courtroom through a variety of expert witnesses who could testify, in the face of cross-examination, to the necessity of his particular pattern of personal behavior to the quality of art that he has created. Still, just as insanity defenses don't always work in particular cases, neither might the genius defense. 

We don’t have mental deficiency – whether of the cognitive or psychiatric variety – decided by a self-recognized class of ‘deficients’ for legal purposes. So why then allow it for claims of genius, even though that is what much of the artistic community who recognizes Polanski as one of their own seems to wish?

August 28, 2009

How to Tell a Failed Genius from a Diligent Mediocrity – in One’s Own Lifetime

I operate in many different fields, and I am always interested in passing judgement. In fact, I don’t feel that I’ve made my mark as a human being until I have passed judgement. My sense of ‘human being’ is theologically informed: God passes judgement but infallibly, whereas humans – created in his image and likeness – do so too, but fallibly. And this fallibility appears in the dissent, censure and/or ridicule that such judgements receive from others so created. But that’s no reason to stop passing judgement.

I realize that fellow academics are uncomfortable with the idea of passing judgement, which is routinely seen as the stuff of ethics, politics, aesthetics – but not ‘science’! But this is to shortchange science’s centrality to our humanity, understood in this robust Biblical sense. Of course, my colleagues may not feel that science needs to be understood this way, and that a careful and balanced presentation of various sides of an issue is sufficient for ‘scientific’ purposes.

My response is that, like any virtue, fairness needs to be exercised in moderation. And the refusal to pass judgement may amount to being ‘too fair’, in that it neglects the fact that however the arguments stack up now is unlikely to be how they will stack up in the future. Perhaps more importantly, and certainly more subtly, the refusal to pass judgement is itself a judgement that will affect what subsequently happens. Just because you cannot fully determine the future doesn’t mean that you can opt out of bearing at least some responsibility for it. As Sartre said, there is no exit.

So, given that we are ‘always already’ making judgements, which ones are most crucial for the future? How to tell a failed genius from a diligent mediocrity – that is, the ‘A-‘ from the ‘B+’ mind. Consider two rather different cases: In the future, will Craig Venter appear as a visionary who helped to turn biology into a branch of engineering or merely an entrepreneur who happened to hit upon a lucrative technique for sequencing genes? Will Slavoj Zizek be seen as someone who leveraged philosophy’s weak academic position to revive the modern mission of public enlightenment or merely a clever and popular purveyor of (by now) familiar Marxo-Freudian themes?

For some benchmarks on how to think about these matters, consider the difference between the significance that was accorded to Edison and Voltaire, respectively, in their lifetimes and today.

Readers may recall that a decade ago I published a long and scathing study of the origins and influence of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the most influential account of science in the second half of the 20th century – and perhaps the entire century. To his credit, Kuhn seemed to be sensitive to the issue that I am raising here. But he was convinced – very much like Hegel – that it could only be decided in retrospect. In other words, it makes no sense to speculate about future value judgements. I disagree: The present is the site in which the future is constructed. What Kuhn did not fully appreciate – though he half-recognised it – is that we get the future that matches our current judgements by carefully selecting the chain of historical precedents that lay the foundation for them.

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