the problem of the docks
May 24, 2020, 10:51 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,


We know morality comes from God and is passed through priests who write codes to which we become devotees. It’s essence is pure as it stems from a pure God and is passed through pure priests who make pure codes.

But there is another morality origin story. Merchants hire police and make self serving laws to protect their property on docks around the world. The laws are presented as moral even though their ultimate motive is self serving and maybe even impure. To know morality it may be better see where power lies than where God is.

Unfortunately, when we teach morality, when we study the history of morals, we always analyze the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and do not read [Colquhoun], this character who is fundamental for our morality. The inventor of the English police, this Glasgow merchant … settles in London where, in 1792, shipping companies ask him to solve the problem of the superintendence of the docks and the protection of bourgeois wealth. [This is a] basic problem …; to understand a society’s system of morality we have to ask the question: Where is the wealth? The history of morality should be organized entirely by this question of the location and movement of wealth.

Michel Foucault


This is from the recent review of Man on Wire the new documentary of Philippe Petit’s high wire stunt at the World Trade Center. What is striking about this description of the journalists who swarmed the scene as the Frenchman was being led from the building’s lobby, is that the press asked why he did it, and not something else.  ‘Why’ is full of existential potential; even the film critic calls the question absurd.  And yet Petit scoffed that the question is scolding and very American.  Here is a puzzling difference of opinion.  Which is it, moralizing or absurd?

Consider the scene:  the tallest bank towers in the world, police, handcuffs, the press, the 1970’s energy crisis, perhaps.  And now put in it the diminutive Frenchman, outsider, lawbreaker, artist, pariah.  The scene is indeed an absurd imbalance of power and law over art and human will.  But, and unbelievably, the press are motivated to ask ‘why’ by narrow moralism.

Here is the excerpt.  Read the entire film review

Frenchman Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and when he came down (in police handcuffs), American reporters pressed close to ask why, why, why. The question, of course, was absurd. A third of a century on, it still gets Petit going: “Very American finger-snapping … I did somezing magnificent and mysterious and I got a ‘why,’ and ze beauty of eet is zat I don’t have a ‘why.’”

Folie a Deux: A heist picture about one of the greatest stunts in New York/a>< history,” David Edelstein