Syracuse Symposium- W.J.T. Mitchell

W.J.T. Mitchell

Went to a talk last night by W.J.T. Mitchell. In many ways, it just seemed to be a restatement of the same old problem: how do we reconcile the universal and the particular? I came away completely unsatisfied that this tangent really cast any light on the issue at all.

Mitchell built his talk around John Rawls original position, that of judgment through the “veil of ignorance.” Simply stated, in the liberal approach to morality we must base all moral judgments on abstractions rather than specific concerns. Law should reside outside the traditional communitarian patriarch/matriarch and rely on an imagined ignorance of the particular facts of real people living in the real world. We can only project our symbolic abstractions on a veil of ignorance. Mitchell noted that this approach seems to work within the boundary conditions of specific nations, but not as a global strategy. This, I would assume, fuels his reasoned designation of “beyond the veil of ignorance” as subtitle.

The set-up was pretty basic. One of the preconditions of Judeo-Christian law has been the prohibition of images (second commandment). Restrictions on images have been generally unsuccessful; restriction on the movement of peoples has been more successful—borders with checkpoints and immigration laws resulting in the “de-legalization” of people in specific territories. The ties between image politics and border politics was tenuous throughout the talk. The talk was probative and to my ears inconclusive. In the discussion afterward, Mitchell seemed to imply that the abstract and the specific can be held in suspension and that the veil can be upheld as a path to justice.

I was reminded of William Blake’s usage of “veil” in most of his writings. It seems odd that Mitchell, who began as a Blake scholar, was completely comfortable with Rawls’s use of the term. For Blake, the “veil” was generally held to be metaphorically equivalent to the hymen. Once rent, once you see behind the veil, it is impossible for “innocence” or virginity to grow back.