Last week, an RV appeared in front of Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold's home in West Seattle. It was immediately assumed to be a piece of political theater inspired by the center-right's Ari Hoffman, a man who thinks homelessness is about individuals and not the kind of society they live in. Herbold, who is running to retain her seat next month, and who is politically somewhere between the radical left and center left, is seen the same as Lenin by the right in Seattle. The RV in front of her digs read as a taunt. Both the right and left contributed to this reading. The Seattle rapper Matt Spek Watson (Spekulation) played a big role in transmitting this reading to the progressive side of our city's politics. But it turned out that the RV was real, and owned by a couple who are caught up in Seattle's housing affordability crisis. What is telling in all of this, is that we can imagine the politics of the crisis much faster than what it is in reality.
But if you want to read more about the details of this sad story, go here (KIRO) and here (Seattle Times). What I want to extract from this mess is what's constantly ignored in almost all discussions about housing: Why is it most of us do not see the very idea of a housing crisis as anything but bizarre? Meaning, why can't people see that housing, in regards to the human as an animal, is not even an issue? The fact that it is, is something that's just out of this world. How on earth did we get here? An RV scandal in Seattle.
Who did this?! Someone left an RV outside of Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold's house and tagged ' @DoriMonson 4 Governor ' on it 👀
(📸 ~ @CarolynKIROFM) pic.twitter.com/7J2LJfEENh
— KIRO Radio 97.3 FM🎙 (@KIRORadio) October 9, 2019
Before reading the rest of this post, however, it's important that you watch this 24-minute British documentary "Equal by Design."
Equal-by-Design-20160515 from Lone Star Productions on Vimeo.
The connection that is made between the 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, and urban housing might at first seem difficult to understand. But it is of the greatest importance. As far as I can tell, Spinoza never wrote a single line about how, why, and where to house humans. He also had very little to say about money—but the few things he does say about money in Ethics, his masterpiece, are profound. Housing, money, and economics were not his direct concern. He was preoccupied with establishing a social-physics of the human. In a sense, this is more anthropological than philosophical. The metaphysical side of Spinoza (what is the ground of being as a whole) is the least interesting part of his work. Where he shines is when discussing how humans tick: what makes them sad (inaction) and happy (action), and the variety of emotions that express these two main passions (there is a third, but it's unnecessary to bring it up now).
The human then is not so much an individual but a concentration of affects that can be attributed to a network of causes (and consequent effects) that recede into the mists of time. The documentary provides an explanation of Spinoza's thinking by considering one of his three ways of knowing the world. One is by imagination, another is intuition. The third is reason. What distinguishes the imagination from reason is what's important, as it concerns the substance of this post. The imagination is basically a response to the world as immediately experienced. If someone breaks into your house, you consider this person to be bad. They are invading your privacy. They are breaking the law. They have placed you in harm's way, and so on. There is truth in this, but it is a limited one. Reason, or ratio, is a much broader truth. It sees the actions of individuals not as directed entirely by individuals but by a series of events. For example, the person robbing your house is probably poor because his or her family is desperately poor, and, as a consequence, he/she failed in school due to a lack of needed resources. Humans do not just act, but are acted upon.
The job of conservatives is to dismiss reason, ratio, as classically understood (an examination of connected extrinsic causes), and to establish a whole other kind of reasoning, which they call the rational actor. This way of reasoning requires that the person be responsible for the things that they do entirely. And so what failure, poverty, or homelessness comes down to is nothing more than a set of bad choices. The same goes for success—it represents a set of good choices. If you end up in prison, bad choices were made; if you end up the CEO of a corporation, good choices were made. This logic of choices, then, justifies CEO salaries and a monetary measurement of character (this the key in sight the documentary of Equal by Design). It also explains why a large number of black men are in US prisons: blacks have, according to this view, the tendency of making bad choices. What this form of rationalization does, then, is neutralize or, better yet, flatten the objective world and emphasizes the subjective one. The two (the objective and the subjective) are no longer co-coherent but totally disconnected.
In the video Equal by Design, we are presented with reason as ratio. The philosophers, architects, and urban planners do not just the see the present crisis from its visible consequences—poverty, homelessness, crime, and so on—but from a wider perspective that connects the dots: a shift in political priorities, the dominance of market-rate developments, the decline of social housing, the increasing meaninglessness of what is defined as affordable. What we have then is a cultural parameter space that sets a specific kind of physics into motion—Spinoza would call this a physics of human bodies that are either in motion or at rest, but he does not describe this somatic physics as culturally determined, as I do. The physics of this cultural parameter space sends certain bodies to the top of luxury apartments and other bodies directly to the street.
In the short but very useful guide to Spinoza's Ethics, Beth Lord, a philosopher featured in Equal By Design, describes, in the section "The Three Kinds of Knowledge," the "distinction between imagination and reason."
According to Lord...
The first kind of knowledge is imagination, opinion or empirical knowledge. This is confused and uncertain knowledge based on inadequate ideas. Such knowledge comes to us in a number of ways. As we have seen, a great deal of it comes to us through our sense-perceptions and the images that result from them: those images are organised into memories, anticipations, inferences, and so on. Since these imaginings depend on what we happen to encounter through our senses, Spinoza calls it ‘knowledge from random experience’
Reason, on the other hand, is not tied to sense-perceptions, which trigger the idea not to an external series of events, but to external associations (causes). Reason is the knowledge drawn "from... adequate ideas of the properties of things." As such, reason "enables us to understand the limitations and errors of imagination." And what is revealed by reason is "an understanding of [a] thing’s causes..." Now, the imagination is not all bad. It is, after all, the source of great fiction in novels and movies, and it's also the source of important religious concepts; but the imagination should be recognized as a lower grade of knowledge accumulation than reason, which can separate a physics set into motion by cultural parameters from a physics set into motion by nature (or God, which, for Spinoza, are interchangeable terms). When many Americans eat up the ideas of a Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro as reality, and therefore as reason, they have no idea they are not only scoffing the imagination, but a very impoverished form of it.
Which brings us back to the RV incident. What we find here is the imagination in the condition of total disorder. There is no reason in sight. The right, whose politics is nothing more than the cultural parameter space twisted into a reason that makes sense only in that space, have forced the left to participate in this cultural construction. An RV appears in front of Lisa Herbold's house. It is a striking image. The imagination associates this image with this or that feeling about the housing crisis. These feelings never leave the imagination. The right has clearly won in this story because the left must operate within the parameters of its imagination (its form of culture).
And here is the deepest thing I have to say on the matter: The right has succeeded in making reason as ratio—reason obtaining, as best as it can, the cause and effect world of actuality—into a matter of opinion, of imagination. And so the debate on, say, the housing crisis, is now between reason obtaining the perspective of nature (or God) and Shapiro-like reasoning, a reasoning constructed whole-cloth from culture. This is what whataboutism is all about—the effort to confuse reason as critique of the imagination with reason as the imagination.