application of rortys perspective to the movie this divided state

Application of Rorty’s perspective to the movie “This Divided State”

“This Divided State” is amongst highly relevant films, touching acute issues of  North American campus life, in particular turning it into the tempest of political debates. Given the multiplicity of dimensions addressed by Stevenson, the motion picture could be interpreted from different perspectives; Richard Rorty’s theory of “Ironists” and “Metaphysicians” appears particularly interesting in this sense. The present paper is designed to put the film into Rorty’s context of communication.

First of all, it is necessary to understand fully and clearly the division the theorist puts forth in his article. According to the writing, metaphysicians are individuals, who observe formalities in terms of each person’s official (legal) rights, freedoms and evaluate others’ actions using the corresponding terminology: “The metaphysician is still attached to common sense, in that he does not question the platitudes which encapsulate the use of a given final vocabulary, and in particular the platitude which says there is a single permanent reality to be found behind the many temporary appearances. He does not redescribe but, rather, analyzes old descriptions with the help of other old descriptions” (Rorty, p.3). Opposed to metaphysician is ironist who “thinks nothing has an intrinsic value, a real essence” (Rorty, p.3). Ironists do not believe in such a close correlation between their vocabulary and the objective reality, which is excessively multifaceted to be described with human language, whereas metaphysicians, similarly to Christ’ disciples, believe in the existence of the single and commonly shared Truth and in the sufficiency of their own verbal “arsenal”. The nature of any object could be revealed, according to metaphysicians, through asking carefully developed and formulated questions, or using the scientific  methods like induction, inference, logical analysis, comparison and contrast and so forth. The method of dialectic is, however, avoided by metaphysicians as not enough reliable, given that it actually does not allow setting clear and defined criteria for interpreting certain phenomena, whereas metaphysics seem to need a “framework”. Metaphysicians approach such philosophical inquiries very seriously, contrarily to ironists who often believe that diving deeply into a certain context or focusing on a sole vocabulary might turn out counterproductive given the validity of such vocabulary is temporary or relative: “The metaphysician assumes that our tradition  can raise no problems which it cannot solve – that the vocabulary  which the ironist fears may be merely “Greek” or Western or bourgeois is an instrument which will enable us to get at something universal. The metaphysician agrees with the Platonic Theory of Recollection […]” (Rorty, p.5).

“This Divided State” narrates about the firestorm, caused by the political division before the 2004 election, when activist Moore, the libertarian, was invited to deliver a speech in the college of Utah in Family City, which is predominantly Mormon and Republican. Applying Rorty’s approach to the very beginning of the film, it is important to highlight that the event is actually initiated by the group of ironists, young American students, not bonded by the strong commitment to any political or religious movement, but merely by the desire to explore several viewpoint of the allegedly diplomatic political discourse. The typical feature of an ironist is an effort to study all available positions without, however, making an absolutist conclusion and judging one of them as “indeed truthful”. As Rorty himself writes, “For the ironist searches for a final vocabulary are not destined to converge” (Rorty, p.5). As one can understand, addressing the issue of vocabulary differences and distinctions, the author actually pays reader’s attention to the dissensions in the order of reasoning each person reveals most prominently through terminology they employ. In this sense, the learners who invite Moore, seem first indecisive, but are simply not determined enough in terms of the value system; saying in explicitly unassertive way, they just seek to leave some freedom of conclusion for both themselves and their audience or listeners. Furthermore, the members of the specified group still seem to doubt in the connection of the terms they use for reasoning to reality, as the true ironist “has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts” (Rorty, p. 2).  These students’ independence is also a feature inherent to ironists; even though they belong to the community that shares clearly defined political interests, they dare demonstrate the relative adherence to this community through seeking a its political antagonist’s views.

Although Moore is a successful political, it is also possible to categorize him as an ironist, as he tends to question each value system, each belief and each political view he encounters. He challenges his peers and is even capable to express some irony for his own views, which are neither correct nor fully refutable, but most comprehensive in terms of ironist’s worldview, composed of an open mind, tolerance and ability to reconcile inconsistent positions and put them under the same umbrella. Using Rorty’s account, it is possible to suggest that liberalism is not a single system of coordinates, but rather a collection of manifold value systems, applied to a specific area – for instance, economic liberalism implies government’s minimal intervention into commerce, in diplomatic relations it means representation of the country on the international arena, but avoidance of global violence and military conflicts and so forth. Liberalism’s basic principle is valuing “other vocabularies”, as it is always possible to benefit from them, yet the ultimate distinction between the absolute good and the absolute evil is never defined in liberalism, as the doctrine is particularly flexible and adjustable to the current context or situation. Accordingly, Rorty observes: “I call people of this sort “ironists” because their realization that anything can be make to look good or bad by being redescribed, and their renunciation of the attempt to formulate criteria of choice between final vocabularies, puts them in the position which Sartre called “meta-stable”: never quite able to take themselves seriously” (Rorty, p.2). Similarly, Moore appears in the film to be a two-faced Janus (in the positive connotation), as on the one hand he reveals tolerance and acceptance; on the other, in his resonance-breeding speech he also demonstrates the capacity of comparing, contrasting explicitly juxtaposing the interests and ambitions deriving from different vocabularies; thus, he addresses Mormons and talks about their existing problems associated with generally lower quality of life in the state, comparing their plans concerning Bush’s presidency, to the rest of the United States and finally upgrading the discourse to a more abstractive level.

   At the same time, Sean Hannity and the community of Mormons reveal of features of metaphysicians who appear to define their “Absolute” in the following terms: stability, gradual and slight changes, commitment to religious dogmas, classical morality that consists in individual’s strong commitment to society; moreover, they ultimately merge this array of views as truthful and faultless, given that it is time-honored. Metaphysicians, as Rorty writes, have an intrinsic fear of radical changes (p.4) and therefore prefer to neglect or ignore alternative perspectives on polity and social order. Both Conservatives’ and Mormons’ views are rigid and barely adjustable to the requirements dictated by epoch, as these citizens are so convinced in the imperatives their fathers and probably grandfathers observed that they are physically incapable of letting reforms in.

As one can assume, the events illuminated by the director, perfectly fit into the typical misunderstanding between a metaphysician and an ironist: whereas the former uses traditional (“scientific”, “political”, “social”) vocabulary (and his reasoning is corresponding), the latter tends to mix vocabularies, checking them for consistency with the present day. Hence Mormons accuse Moore of the lack of evident moral principles (yet what is morality? isn’t it outdated –an archetypal ironist wonders) and the betrayal of the “religious vocabulary”, which, for Moore, is simply one of the numerous systems of coordinates.  Therefore, when delivering his speech, Moore does not seem dependable and trustworthy to the audience, as he does not reiterate the terms referring to their “Absolute”: “commitment’, “observance”, “tradition”, “integrity” and so forth. In fact, Moore fails to develop a firm belief in his own words: “The ironist thinks that such arguments – logical arguments – are all very well in their way, and useful as expository devices, but in the end not much more than ways of getting people to change their practices without admitting they have done so” (Rorty, p.6). At the same time, his antagonist manages to fully employ the community’s vocabulary and get officials to begin the lawsuit against the waste of university funds.

To sum up, when diving deeply into the context of the film through the lens of Rorty’s theory, one can realize the events are based upon the long-lasting antagonism between metaphysicians and ironists manifested through the politically colored clash between the opposing political factions. Although it would be unwise to classify all characters categorically into these two groups, as canonical metaphysicians and ironists are rare just like all pure types, the ideological aspect of the debate clearly reveals such negative sides as narrow-mindedness and failure to take a stable ground for arguments in metaphysicians and ironists respectively.

Works cited

Rorty, R. “Metaphysicians and Ironists”. In The truth about the truth, pp. 102-106.

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