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Who was that Unmasked Man?

Who was that Unmasked Man?

            The concept of authority is a much troubled one for we moderns. In the previous age, power amongst human beings was certainly brandished in a more subjective fashion, often based on personalist traits including the apparently vanished ‘charisma’, which the social scientist Max Weber implied could not exist in modernity. There was a corresponding paucity of rational mechanisms for the exertion of power by way of achieved or accrued status. Heritable station, even caste, was enough to endow some and deny many the necessary stakes in social life with which to maintain a viable existence. Though we are suspicious of authority in all its forms, we do pride ourselves in leveling the field to an extent that most persons in wealthy countries can at least live without daily fear of sickness and death.

            Why then, if we are aware of this transformation from what now appears to us as the patent unreason of a culture masking itself as a fraudulent nature – perhaps the final residue of this older worldview pertains to eugenics and ‘race’ theory, though any reductivist applied science skirts it at its peril; neuroscience, sociobiology, cognitive therapy – do we also consistently maintain an oft unreasoned skepticism regarding the space and status of modern authority? Why, given the seemingly obvious sensibility that an illness can be transmitted in this way or that, would some of us shun the equally obvious precautions? More than this, immediately declare that such passing modifications to daily life are a symptom of a deeper and darker recess within which authority conspires to dominate the world at large?

            The ‘strange bedfellows’ of politics aside, the resistance to the wearing of masks and practicing the so-called ‘social distance’ hails from the margins of mass democratic statehood. Small time evangelicals, neo-fascist militias, conspiracy ‘theorists’ of many stripes and streaks, even some neo-conservatives who feel abandoned by their chosen political representatives populate this pastiche. Who, exactly, are these fellow citizens, and why do they appear to differ from the vast majority of us along these sudden lines? Is the anti-mask affair merely a convenient hitching post where a number of unrelated horses may be tied during a tavern tabernacle? Is it a question of metaphor; a mask denies part of our identity, for instance, or is likened to a political muzzle? It certainly hasn’t taken long for advertisers to take advantage of this additional apparel ‘accessory’, given many masks now sport logos of various kinds. If there is a semi-conscious sense that a mask inhibits my personhood, many people have taken to creative work-arounds that still proclaim something about themselves they think it is worth others’ while to know, kind of like a removable tattoo.

            But not everyone. Authority in its contemporary issue is at once loosed from above and below alike. Above due to the apparent absence of godhead, and below, due to the problems of direct political representation. One the one hand, there is no ‘higher’ authority than the State, a difficult pill to swallow for many of us, myself as a thinker included. I would like to be able to say, ‘no, truth is itself the highest authority’, or more murkily, ‘art’, or ‘the good’. That the neighbor takes precedence over the socius, that my justice overtakes that of the law, that my ethical life exists beyond the general ken of rationalized morals, and so on. Aside from its claim to possess a monopoly of force, the State also declares itself to be the final court of both accusation and appeal. On the other hand, its presence, like the Leviathan, is to be taken as given and might only be indirectly questioned through regime change by way of the electoral process. Seen in its naked fraudulence, already less dressed than its predecessor the Church, the State is easy to unmask. That we understand our governments to wear the mask of responsibility – and sometimes even live up to this general theater in a convincing manner – is to also comprehend that they are not what they seem to be. So if the one who already wears the mask and is known to be other than it is demands that we too now don this same article, is that not to tell us that we must become yet more like the State in our private lives?

            We do hear the cliché refrain about the ‘nanny state’ within the fragmented voices of the anti-mask huzzah. Ask the same people about EI and healthcare etc. and there might be a different response. But bracketing this ever-present irony, I think that these protesters must view the State as something that is mysterious, a persona like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, to use some old-fashioned examples, but one which is magnified into a monstrous form. The Lone Ranger, from whose juvenile script the title of this piece is paraphrased, is, with further irony, a persona who would in fact appeal to the anti-maskers. They appear to see themselves as more individual than the rest of us, more self-reliant, more heroic, and evidently also more immune, even to non-human forms of life. If we were merely jaded, the entire affair would appear only as an ongoing cliché, the evil state making yet more demands upon freedom-loving individuals.

            Not only is this dull it is also dimwitted. One, no member of mass society can claim to be free in this way. Our individual freedom in the public realm is immensely limited, simply because of the existence of others. Respecting this is in fact an act of free will and a recognition of it as a principle of human life, as in doing so, we grant the freedom of others to also reassure us of our human status. To do otherwise is to set oneself apart from one’s fellows, however and otherwise strange they may be, and claim that only a certain few should be ‘free’ and the rest of us can go to the wall. Two, if there truly is a serious concern about civil liberties that too is addressed by not by making exceptions but by giving the other the courtesy to live with the best chance of being unassailed by health concerns. Freedom, in its ethical essence, consists of being a vehicle for the freedom of others.

            That the State must demand this of us can only be put down our own lack of ethical awareness. But organizing a symptom of such interaction amongst citizens is not the same as defining what freedom is or is not. A mask is metaphoric also in this way; it does not pretend to be the reality of mass society, only its appearance; anonymous and impersonal, generally non-responsible and always flirting with authoritarianism. The reality of our existence remains, as ever, within our own conscience. No decisions are being taken from us. When I forget my mask in my car on the way to the grocery store I duly return and retrieve it. I have done so uncounted times already as we are creatures of daily habit. Why I do so is another matter. I want to be one momentary vehicle for the freedom of the other. I do not want to ‘set an example’, ‘toe the line’, mock the other or chide her for her own neglect. And I do not desire to make myself mysterious; indeed, I am the less so because others observe my action as consistent with the otiose demands of the day. I have nothing to hide in wearing a mask, in the same way I might wear clothes, or that I might drive defensively, or that I limit my glance at an ‘attractive’ woman to a good-natured and discreet one-off. Perhaps I could do yet more to this last regard and many others, but the mask-wearing should be seen in the same light as all the other trifling things we do to make life easier and to let others know that we’re on their side no matter how ludicrous the effect.

            Freedom is itself a modern conception. One cannot imagine that modernity turns its back on its own native child. It is true that this birth, so cherished, has not lived up to its expectations, but what child does? Freedom is such a recent idea that one cannot expect it to manifest its historical genius overnight and over against the countless eons within which even its herald could not exist. I would suggest that anyone who has doubts about authority and feels his freedom impinged upon examine the critical threshold over which conformity becomes truly dangerous. I’d also like to say, ‘I’ll let you know’, but in fact each of us is charged with the task of confronting authority at every turn. It’s only the professional job of the thinker to do so; more profoundly, it is the birthright of all human beings. More than this, it is the working side of human freedom, which is absolutely not a given, as is the State, and which can only be made real through our being’s resoluteness, its being-ahead, and its receptivity to the call of conscience. Freedom, like history more widely, is both a gift and a task. The unmasked man of resistance in reality resists the work necessary for freedom to become authentic. Only in this authenticity can we in turn unmask any fraudulent attempt at truth, the enforced freedoms of institutions, for instance, or more personally, the beliefs we imagine overtake those same institutions, almost all of which arose in ages wherein human freedom was non-existent. The unimpressive irony of the anti-mask associates betrays its lack of historical consciousness precisely along these lines; that it seeks freedom from modern authority through the use of older and likely imaginary authorities that would, if left unconstrained, demolish every last bit of human freedom we have painstakingly attained over the past four centuries. Thus the mask I wear protects me from far more than just a virus.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl

My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl

            The deep contempt with which the still noble world of antiquity treated the Christian belongs just where the instinctual repugnance for the Jews belongs today: it is the hatred of the free and self-confident classes for those who make their way forward unobtrusively and combine shy, awkward gestures with an absurd sense of self-worth. (Nietzsche, notebook 10, Autumn, 1887, italics original).

            In the spring of 1995 I shared some BC ferry seats with German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and her long time partner Horst Kettner. They were simply two unobtrusive members of a large tour bus filled with Germans visiting Vancouver Island. What little of the language I had at the time told me they were discussing local scuba diving and underwater marine film, which was then the vogue in her varied film making career. We stared at one another for a few moments when we debarked but I was far too shy to say anything, assuming her English was as poor as was my French. I had seen, a few months beforehand, the documentary ‘Power of the Image’ which was an awkward biography of her professional life, though it allowed me to immediately identify them aside from the conversation at hand. Knowing who she was imparted to her a presence that no one else in my experience has possessed. Of course, this was as much a projection as anything to do with a larger history. I was so taken aback at this encounter that I spoke of it with no one for many years, and it faded from memory.

            But it ‘never goes away’, just as Sir Ian McKellen’s character in Stephen King’s ‘Apt Pupil’ reminded the young protagonist regarding fascist yearnings. That hour or so on the ferry was silently awkward and in the end, irrelevant to anything in my personal life at the time. Now, a quarter century later and some seventeen years after her death in 2003, I only find myself returning to it given my own recent work on the fascism of meanings in fantasy writing and in liberal humanistic philosophy. I never had agreed with Sontag, whom I use regularly as a source, that Riefenstahl’s directing somehow embodied the so-called ‘fascist aesthetic’. No, we do, as a whole, embody such a form. The sub-title to the 2-part ‘Olympia’, Riefenstahl’s film devoted to the 1936 Summer Games – the version that invented the torch run, amongst other ongoing things – is loosely given as ‘festival (or celebration) of peoples, festival of beauty’ which is essentially what the Olympics are and have always been. Riefenstahl nailed it because she herself as a youth had embodied these qualities, as judged by the esthetics of the time. Not, aesthetics, which is the more serious and formal term for the philosophical study of art forms. There is no fascist ‘aesthetic’, even as there remains an undeniable fascist esthetic – the look of beauty, its identity, its genders, its glamor and the ressentiment that attends to its every move. The supermodel of today is the Christian of the first century Levant, the fashion critic, the Jew.

            Nietzsche’s texts were notoriously reconstituted by the Reich, but not all his work needed such over-writing. Hitler was both shy, awkward, and oddly unassuming, in both his sensibilities and in his gestures. They come across today as absurdities, and John Cleese makes a better ‘Mr. Hilter’ than did Hitler himself. Daily overcoming social anxiety, Hitler memorized his speeches, endlessly practicing his body language and facial expressions in front of the mirror, and one can only imagine resenting his inconsequential stature, provincial birthright and all the rest of it. It is a feeling that many of us must also overcome, for who is born at the center of things who then seeks to become the center of everything?

            Man to woman, someone like Hitler could never have landed a date with someone like Riefenstahl, one of the dream-girls of her day. And yet history brought them together and sometimes in close quarters. Hitler, with just that ‘absurd sense of self worth’ imagined he understood art, and he certainly put much energy into what abilities he did have – his watercolor renderings were decent for an architectural student though very much out of fashion when in 1907, he was rejected in favor of Oskar Kokoschka in the entrance competition to the Vienna art academy – and ‘aesthetics’ dominated the Reich from its attempts at stolen nobility right down to its very uttermost depths of human evil. Yet this too, the ‘saving’ of the world by eliminating those who stain it, remains with us. In this current era of renewed naissance of nationalism and patriotism of party, are we not embodying something rather more than just the look of what is deemed to be beautiful?

            It almost seems that none of the larger geopolitical lessons of the second World War have stuck with us, and we are approaching a biographical threshold over which an absence proclaims itself: that no one living will have lived through that now alien period. It is a limen that creates history out of what was until that point still memory. It is, from the perspective of human experience that can be personally and intimately shared, a most dangerous moment. The only response we have to confront this aleatory lacunae is by way of art. Riefenstahl’s service was more than regrettable, but her films themselves remain as relevant as ever. But not in that they in turn served to help convince many Germans of the time that their path had become one of super-destiny and that the ‘natural’ form of response to any ‘lower’ form was contempt, just as Nietzsche had suggested some half-century earlier.

            Though in the intervening decades it was the German social scientist Max Weber who corrected Nietzsche’s perhaps metaphoric language regarding the origins of Christianity and its relationship with the ancient Hebrews – in the Roman Mediterranean, Christianity was actually sourced in the artisan classes and spread upwards from there, not downwards; it was not a ‘slave religion’ in any real sense – such an understanding could only direct further obloquy against the ‘pariah community’ of the nascent Jewish diaspora. With further irony, Hitler’s movement was limited to awkwardly skulking along politically for over a decade. Historically, one can as ever hope that the same may be said of it; a moment when human reason took a recess. But this is naïve.

            What are the movements of the margins in our own time? Who is attracted to them and why? Where do they arise and how? And are they merely nostalgic retreads of lost historical causes or are they rather symptoms of a society and a world that continues to structure its life and consciousness too closely to that which allowed fascism to grasp the center of things to its paltry self before being superseded by the slightly more subtle neo-colonial ambitions of the victorious powers?

            At once, we can do two things, each of us: one, the next time we are tempted to look with contempt at another human being, step back from doing so. No one person can be the lightning rod for historical ressentiment. Riefenstahl neither as an artist nor as a person can be accountable for the way that I might stare down my nose at the so-called ‘ignoble’ of humanity. And two, we must recognize that our shared contempt for those whose marginal existences has driven them to entertain the worst of our humanity can only aid their cause. Instead, we can yet take both core principles of Judaism and Christianity to be our guides; the one, that we as a species are and remain the ‘chosen people’, and the other, that we are thence placed in the existential position of having to choose one another through the act of the neighbor. It is only through this act, the ‘libertinage of compassion’, that our world will survive itself, let alone its lack of memory of the chance encounters through which historical consciousness is in majority made.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy

Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy

           “The will to pleasure and the will to death also live with one another, even within one another. Is one only angelic and the other only demonic? Hardly so. Pleasure induces a great suffering, second only to that of love, and death could well be its a merciful release. She is an angel, yes, but angels too have needs. They are not exactly human but all this presents to me is a challenge.” (from Loewen 2020c).

                A cursory view of the fantasy genre suggests a puzzle which might engender a quest of its own: which is more phantasmagorical: The reality from which we desire escape or that which we use as an escape? On the one hand, the novels, the cycles, the screenplays, the scripts; on the other, and adding to their simultaneous simulacra, the actors, the directors, the producers, the publishers. Akin to Bartok’s ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’, fantasy as entertainment and escape present to society a massive decoy game which outlasts political regimes and the ebb and flow of wealth. Yet this kind of fantasy is not ancient in the manner in which religion, for instance, is understood. We moderns have replaced deistic religion with that civil, but the State remains all too real, in spite of its presentation of self as our guardian angel. So the enchanted element of religious belief, its sheer demand for a faith rather than for a proof – there can be no ‘proving’ magic, as it were – is left to the culture industry.

            The very phrase is a contradiction in terms. Not only by virtue of modern redefinitions of what constitutes ‘production’ – something that generates capital directly; and yet how can a Tolkien or a Rowling not be seen as producers of impressive capital? – but as well by equally contemporary aesthetic standards; culture as Kultur or Kunst cannot be ‘produced’ in this way. Art either transcends the mundanity of productive history or it presents itself as an horizontal egress from it. The one is sometimes still referred to as ‘serious art’ and the other correspondingly ‘popular’. Fantasy writing etc. occupies the latter, and hence – or is it thence? – so does fantasy itself.

            With approximately 55% female readership, fantasy writing nevertheless has been historically written mostly by men (though one study states that in the first quarter of 2019 female authors accounted for about 60% of the more current publications). Of the women writers covering the last fifty years or so, bracketing possible pseuodonymy either way, about 80% of publications etc. which contain female leads have as their plot a romance centering around that heroine who is from the beginning already fully equipped for the task at hand but has been unfairly denied the opportunity to press on with the necessary quest. She may have been betrayed by her mentor (Sarah Maas’s eight volume cycle is likely the most known example), or she is absented from an important male who actually turns out to be the rightful heir dispossessed (Crusader Kings 3 and other such digital media), or her love interest is driven by the desire to wield power from behind the scenes (Game of Thrones). The ‘Lady Macbeth’ trope dies hard, and that amongst women who should know better.

            Even where ‘enchantment’ in the purely phantasmagorical sense is irrelevant, the fantasy itself continues apace. In the recent Millie Bobbi Brown affair ‘Enola Holmes’, the teenage heroine is again a displaced genius with all of the skills of an unlikely Ninja but with none of the opportunity. Yet the already famed Holmes brothers’ much younger sister, in spite of her tactical heroics, ultimately favors the conservative path of lesser resistance, in disregard of her mother and mentor being a political radical. What the heroine does resist is love, for it is, though authentic, apparently too paternalistically in the way of her chosen vocation. She tells the camera that her name spelled backwards is, after all, ‘alone’, and thus she follows in Sherlock’s footfalls, alone and aloof if not entirely inhumane. The message for youth, especially for young women, is to simply get your due piece of the action as it is, and not to alter anything structural about the system of belief or of production as it is. The unreality of the heroine’s skill set is only matched by that of the plot – there is a moment where she could have, given her martial arts abilities, simply thrown Lestrade out of a third story window and thereby taken her cause into the authentically political; another wherein she is slapped in the face by her oncoming finishing school governess and then cowers before her instead of snapping her neck, and so on – which hurtles along its ludicrous path while purporting to inspire young people to ‘become who they are’. The individuated sense of heroism overtakes the social reforms that occur through her saving of the rightful male (again), a young lord whose vote facilitates a progressive bill for the era, and this in a currently neo-fascist UK that remains nostalgic for empire and tirelessly promotes its historical literature, both serious and popular, as part of its equally tired civil religion. Where female youth continue to attend schools in pleats and where corporal punishment in the home has yet to be outlawed. One is tempted to reply to the Russian minister of defense when he commented that the Royal Navy’s new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II was ‘simply a large target’, that England itself is in fact a much larger one. The fantasy of Britannia as the ocean-ruling-sword-wielding Atlantis is also ‘simply’ the expensive version of Hogwarts. It is furthermore a masculine fantasy that itself wields the topless pale nymph upon its nautical escutcheon as a kind of ironic talisman. Fittingly, we do not see even a hint of Ms. Brown’s cleavage let alone the other, setting the tone for a church-mouse chastity that reminds one of a Victorian Emma Peel. Dame Diana Rigg, herself schooled in a harsh religious institution which she later felt ‘built her character’, resigned from the projected panache of sexualized violence of ‘The Avengers’ after only two seasons. No doubt the role clashed with her own sensible sensibilities which are after all, also Britain’s very own. Male viewers of the time were nevertheless transfixed.

                Male readers of fantasy as revealed by social media studies complain that fantasy heroines are ‘too perfect’ and ‘unrealistic’, though it should be immediately noted that there is no such concern if the leads are male (‘The Witcher’, for example). But patent sexism aside for the moment, the vast majority of fantasy heroines are indeed portrayed as if they were members of some occluded suffragette movement with the quest to take back the prematurely gifted grail of ‘just give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job’. In fact, in the scripts at least, they are already well in possession of the tools. What they lack, so we are told, is the job, any job.

            In spite of the compelling necessity to exeunt from the penury of wage-slavery as well as from the equal pressures of familial piety, consumers of fantasy, no matter the media of presentation, succumb to narratives which only reinforce the very systems from which they seek relief. And within competing brands of fantasy there is also to be found the fraudulent Sturm und Drang of male heroes who exude a toxic masculinity (James Patterson’s ‘Harry Bosch’ must be the recent paragon of this vile type, to stick within the detective genre for a moment; a ‘man’ who threatens to assault his handsome adolescent daughter, perhaps in lieu of having actual sex with her) as if to provide a bellicose balance to the heroines who in their turn exhibit a strangely disloyal selfishness. The customary sensibility that women should be automatically altruistic and engage in self-sacrifice is at first subverted. These ready-made legends carry all before them but even so, their entire redemptive purpose is to restore the male to his rightful place. This too is a tired real-world fantasy that many women have found, with experience, to be both unworthy of whatever skills they do in fact possess, but also, in these days of dishonor and unchivalry, with most men, quite impossible.

            The other 20% of female-authored fantasies which also have female leads are, however, much more realistic. Here we find the young women ill-prepared for the task at hand, unknowing of either the goal of the quest or of the skills necessary to undertake it. This is the model I use in my own epic, by the way. These superior plots recognize that the phase of any quest which is at least of equal importance to the epic action is the learning curve itself, taken on without promise and sometimes even without premise, for the mystery only gradually unfolds before her as she becomes more of an initiate into the other world. Indeed, there is much less fantasy overall in such texts and thus, correspondingly, much more reality, the kind within which persons are faced with in the day to day. Rather than abruptly excerpting the consumer from their sordid mundanity, they impress upon the reader the necessity of self-understanding, which is a form of love, and which as well can only arrive at some kind of authenticity from within the call of conscience. What inhibits this human process is precisely the fascist fantasy we make daily of social reality as it stands, and which has a far greater consumption rate than do even the most famous fantasy cycles or series. Almost all of us consume it, and any escape therefrom – given that it mostly occurs not by virtue of virtuous wizardry but rather through a doubled-over expanse of distracting entertainment ‘events’, from sports to politics to parenting and ‘even’ to education, voluntarism and worship, all hard-ruled by fascist forms and norms whose goal is control Über Alles, and that together seek to define what the human being is and thus what we are capable of being – is had at the cost of changing that world which is at present our own into one more humane in both its scope and meaning.

            My sense of a true heroine who learns to love herself outside of the objectification of ordered obsolescence (James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’), outside of the glare of glamorous Glasglocke (Plath’s self-portrait), and eschewing the too-educated senses of an Austen or a Bronte, the duet of female fantasists of the preceding age, is one who first overturns filial piety, through parricide if necessary, then overtakes the lead male and cuts him down from behind, unexpectedly, ruthlessly, but also with pleasure, the undressed redress of all ‘discipline’ that has been suffered upon young women as the theatre of surrogate sex. My invocation of the true heroine of the nearest future is an orison not to the beyond but to the coming birthright of the days of decision, wherein humanity as a whole will be forced to confront the effects of its own self-made cause. For

                “The unpolished edge of futurity will draw our collective blood. If it must be spilled, then let the one who holds the sword be a visionary and not a reactionary. Let her raven eyes be the windows of our collective soul. Let her joyous judgement be the compassion of our call to conscience. Let her unknowing be but innocence and never ignorance. Let her knowing become the working wisdom of light before heat”. (from Loewen 2020c).

                Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen

A musical virtuoso whose shared humanity came across in every note, Edward Van Halen 1955-2020.

In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen

                                    Turned out the simple life, weren’t so simple

                                    When I got out on that road. (Van Halen 1978).

            In his Smithsonian Institution interview, Van Halen spoke of the immigrant story, of a family thrown into an alien world, back in 1962 when the to-be-virtuoso guitarist was a mere seven years old. Not speaking English was the greatest barrier at first, but there would be others. A study in contrasts that nevertheless ended up making eminent sense, Van Halen’s life was defined at the outset as an American dream; unlikely, hard-working, persistent, celebrated, resented, and ultimately cut short by the perennially pallid penury of professional entertainment. He spoke of their debut album, which went on to sell more than ten million copies and usher in a new kind of popular music that blended the angst of punk and the romance of the dance floor, as being the beginning of experience, of lost innocence: ‘we cut a best-selling album, went on a sold-out tour for a year, and when we got back the record company told me, congratulations, you owe us a new album and three million dollars.’

            No life can be said to be simple, no matter what it might look like from without. A musical hero, however brilliant and with an impulsive and improvisatory genius however breathtaking, remains human. And yet that is what I always felt was so compelling about Van Halen’s guitar playing; its resonant humanity. Hendrix was god-like, and one could be forgiven if one imagined that he was something more than human. Howe is distant, unforgiving, beautiful in the way great art is and yet oddly removed from the heart of things. Clapton guttural and bitter, abrasive and sometimes even smug. McLaughlin a single strike through the conscience of consciousness, transporting the listener quite literally to ‘visions beyond’. Metheny cool, even chill, the perfection of a sculptor who renders his music as if it could retain its sonic solidity indefinitely. Of all the virtuosos that come easily to mind, only Eric Johnson, like Van Halen, comes across as a great human being first, his humanity guiding the music and creating an over-souled bond with the listener.

            But Van Halen’s perfection came in the midst of mayhem, banality, and a musical form that would not, at first glance, be a likely birthplace for virtuoso genius. Compared with the other great electric players in the above paragraph, Van Halen as a band was the bread and butter, meat and potatoes variety of music. This too made Edward Van Halen stand out without forcing him to stand apart. Millions showed to see him first, as the feature, the lead, the hero, the star. In the most unlikely of places we are struck by the exactitude of his solos – perhaps the most obvious example would be the utter perfection exhibited in ‘Somebody get me a Doctor’ (1979) wherein we are transfixed by seemingly the only series of notes that could elevate a throw-away song into something we would play over and over again; but there are many others – and if Van Halen as a performing act often came across as rock and roll’s answer to Barnum and Bailey, its bombast always had the good graces to never take itself so seriously as to vanish up its own posterior, as did many – if not all – of the biggest acts previous to them.

            I was one of uncounted teenage guitar players fascinated by Van Halen’s technical innovations, attempting to mimic them and feeling inordinately proud when I even came close. And though we are aware that both Hendrix and Hackett regularly used the right-handed ‘hammer-on’ move, for instance, it was Van Halen who perfected it and let it transform the guitar into a broader musical palette. His instrument was inseparable from his person, prefiguring the relations of production in the as yet mythical communism of Marx and Engels, when they speak of the ‘authenticity of the product of labor’. In this too Van Halen was a visionary, and the intriguing mix of juvenilia and critical politics to be found in the actual song-writing of the band is suggestive of a manner of speaking to youth of the difference between things that matter now and those that matter for all time, of some things that matter as much to a mature human life as we as young people might imagine does romance, sex, relationships, money and fame. The band and its blueprint appear to be an essay in confrontation, but by now, after long having the entirety of their catalogue within easy grasp, the whole of what Van Halen was really about appears without such blur.

            And what this whole is, is a kind of freedom from needless and mindless restraint, rule, form and norm. It isn’t simple, just as a human life can never be. To attain a sense of one’s life is to have the courage to get past what has been the past, something that Van Halen never ceased to accomplish. This is the greater freedom of historical being; that history is not yet done. It is a freedom that celebrates its true cause by singing the praises of its passing effects. A freedom that speaks to each generation when it is most receptive of listening, but one which also hopes that in a more sober stage of existence all of us will begin to heed its call and take life itself to be the open and powerful instrument of popular art that Edward Van Halen took to be his own.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

A Speculative Spectrality

Purported ghost image near deer feeder with buck attending. On the right, a closer view without other objects.
Purported image of alien or unknown species (known colloquially or in ‘fakelore’ as ‘the rake’), on deer cam. The camera was discovered the next morning destroyed but the chip survived, suggesting a limit to the creature’s acumen and knowledge of current technology.

A Speculative Spectrality

            In a world with much jostling and grinding daily, one can easily overlook the older anxiety that concerned itself with ‘bumps in the night’. Of late, however, several nocturnal images have appeared that attempt to suggest that these our latter days are not fully free of our ancestors’ imaginations as well as, perhaps, their fears. Though the images reproduced here presumably could have been faked – and we also presume most persons would simply presume that they have been so – the question that remains is why such imagery? This is not a question about why would someone fake an intriguing image, but specifically, why this kind of image, one that purports to represent either ethereal beings or creatures ‘unknown to science’, to use an antiquely appropriate period phrase.

            The first image, which one would think was a vintage doll of some kind – though the deer seems transfixed by its presence; perhaps the doll was sprayed with an attractive scent – represents a ‘ghost’ or spirit. The use of a child is meant to promote a willing sympathy, a female child a sense of vulnerability or yet incompetence. If such a child were really lost in the woods most persons would attempt an immediate rescue. But how do you rescue a ghost? And from what? Having suffered the most grievous crisis known to mortal being, what more could have befallen her? And from such questions, however rhetorical, comes the more pressing question: what is to happen to us? What, in other words, is the meaning of my death?

            It is to this existential anxiety that such images seek address. Not in any abstract manner, since the doll or whatever it may be represents a singular vision and, along with the other creature, an alternative to known beings. I am neither a child nor female, and I am from our own time, when girls are not normally dressed in such vestments. If the first image is anything, it is personal. Even if it is a material fraud, we are forced to identify with its spiritual implications. We know there have been those who have passed before us. Into what? Where? Or if nowhere, what is the zero character of nothingness? We know we too will pass before our youth, other things being equal, and thus we also have already seen, in life, our own autobiographical youth pass before us. I doubt I’ll end up lost in the woods, ethereally incarnated in some regressed form. Indeed, those were the halcyon days of my childhood, wandering in the woods, unmolested by anyone or anything, long before deer cams were invented. Given that, if each of us tends towards their own paradise, an eternity on the beaches and in the forests of my homeland awaits me.

            Seeking attention in life, creating a sensation, committing a prank just for the sake of it, are some humanly material activities that the advent of digital communications have augmented. In the day of the proposed child in the image, a campfire story would be the result of a chance encounter with the unexplained or yet-to-be more lucidly understood. These are minor expressions of the basic will to life that mortal being accrues over that very life course.

            But what if what animates this questioning consciousness also has its own evolution? What if the existence of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ were not at all perennial but rather a ‘secular trend’? This phrase, a term from evolutionary biology, refers to factors which influence the adaptation of regional populations, such as sickle cell anemia. Here, let us propose a species-wide secularity, one that separated us from our more indirect hominid ancestry. We know, for instance, that memorial rites date from the earliest period of anatomically modern human’s existence, some three hundred millennia ago, first discovered, I think, in Anatolia. Durkheim suggests that the work of mourning is the origin of all human memory. In recalling those now passed to themselves, early humans, our most ancient direct ancestors, had made the connection between existence and its trademark conscious and acting life. What they did not do was to extend that logic to non-existence. Instead, ‘inexistence’ was imagined as being the other state into which being could enter pending the completion of materiality. We do not know any details of the thinking of these first fully human beings. It is something we can never know, and in that, this absence of the origin of thought mirrors the absence of thought’s ends. Just as we cannot experience our own deaths, yet we must experience the abstraction of death through the lives of others who confront it before we ourselves must. Both the beginning and the end are obscure to us. We do not choose to be born and, in any general sense, we also do not choose to die.

            If the spirit exists – this is a different, though obviously related, question to that of whether or not ‘spirits’, like the ones purported to be in the images in question, exist – its existence is something that should mirror our understanding of how we ourselves exist, since our spirit is said to be the very essence of our being. Humans are an evolved creature, like all others of which we know. Each part of our complicated and holistically interacting systems has evolved, in current understanding, ‘directly’ for something over seven millions of years. We, perhaps with some vanity, attribute to humanity a soaring spiritude, something that is complex and evolved, however mature it has become or may yet become. Such an ‘organ’, such an aspect of being which partakes of evolutionary Being, could very well have a lengthy pedigree, which might also include other states. Yet if one’s own spirit develops as does one’s own body, then we truly cringe at the possibility – not necessarily ever captured by technology – that a child’s soul, cut out of its living mass before its time, wanders alone and lonely across the exsanguinated expanse of an anonymous world.

            Such imagery that sources itself in our existential questions has a unique, even uncanny power. It is this that we react to, if such haunting or poignant pseudo-portraits give us the spine-tingling moment of sudden self-recognition. If it were the case – and we must remind ourselves that there is no empirical evidence either way regarding such mysteries – that not only the spirit exists but also develops and continues, then we too as living spirits must seek to undertake our own ends. By this I mean that we not only should be prepared to risk our current comprehension of the cosmos in order to widen our conscious aperture, but we should also begin to critically entertain the ancient idea that though there can be nothing larger than life whilst life exists, that there may be more to life than our extant life is willing to admit to itself.

            Without dwelling on the phantasmagorical, the most searching interrogative that such imagery confronts us with is the ethical question of the character of our existence as it is known. How do we live and why do we do so in this way? What is the meaning of my existence, and why do I generally avoid asking such a question? The proposal that we may be more than we can know can be taken quite literally, and without resort to other states or ideas of an afterlife. We each of us is indeed more than we merely have been. The pressing and rather material question concerning whether or not we can be that being, the being of the future and not of the past, is quite simply the most important question of our shared existence.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

In memoriam: Julian Bream

Julian Bream 1933-2020.

In Memoriam: Julian Bream

            The post-war period was fraught with both a sense of liberation and one of alienation. The first due to what appeared at the time to be a resounding victory over fascism, the second due to the sober, and sobering, second thought that such a victory had cost us our very understanding of its opposite, our sense of human freedom. It was left to the sacred aspects of consciousness to breathe anew upon the embers of an incinerated culture. The most enduring light of the sacred represenced itself in art.

            The vehicles for that perduring power in music turned out to be many; Glenn Gould, Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Von Karajan, Maurizio Pollini. Their collective human past, their singular biographies mattered not a jot, in the end. That is, mattered only insofar as their art overtook what it had taken to create it. Such a list is graced by a musician whose instruments remain marginal to serious music. My own instrument, the classical guitar, chief amongst this relative obscurity. So all the more, Julian Bream, the most important guitar player of the post-war era, stands out. It is one thing to be a transformative vehicle for art new and old, but to do so without a baton, piano, or violin, is more than astonishing. Bream accomplished this feat, recording around one hundred albums, listing four Grammy winners, and leaving a legacy that shaped contemporary music well beyond his instrument.

            My student life was hallmarked by being a student of the students of greatness. Partly demographic, partly region of birth, partly class and social background, I was never in any position to personally encounter the top tier of anything. There is no bitterness in this commonplace. Indeed, my own deafness is the nominal version of Beethoven’s; to listen too much is to be bequeathed only the greatness of what already has been. I studied with Bryan Townsend, now a composer, who in turn studied with Michael Strutt, who himself was a student of Bream. In my professional career, I studied with students of the likes of Goffman, Lévi-Strauss, and Parsons. Generally I never think of this pedigree, as it is of no public moment and is not a conscious influence on my own work.

            But when one does encounter the presence of the sacred, the wider universe opens up. Wider, deeper, farther, and with more mystery than any history can encompass. This was the effect of witnessing Julian Bream perform in Victoria in 1985. On stage, Bream always cut an ethereal figure. Not due to any self-conscious theater on his part, but rather because of his execution. Never one for fashionable mannerisms, styles, or pedantries, Bream played everything his own way; the Frank Sinatra of guitar, perhaps. From John Dowland to Benjamin Britten, from Philip Rosseter to Hans Werner Henze, Bream didn’t just record and perform the history of music before one’s senses, he threw open the very space and time in which that music had been created. He opened the portal of the collective soul.

            I felt like I was abruptly there, in an Elizabethan court, in the heated romance of a nocturnal Madrid, or yet in the stark glare of a glass-worked post-war Geist, our own modern moment, shared and unshared alike. Bream was not merely a master of all genres, he was a native to their unabashed birthright. He understood that art enacted had the ability to travel in time and space, but also, and at once more intimately and more infinitely, to transpose one’s own experience with that of the radical otherness of this or that fellow human; a being somewhat like ourselves but with a most necessary message to impart to us.

            Like a Daemon with a human interest, the artist provides the scandal by which history can dismantle morality.  Like a God with a self-interest, the artist recasts morality so that it too, along with ourselves, cannot rest inchoate and bloated amongst the shards of principals and the bad faith of a self-righteousness of neglected responsibility. The presence of artists like Julian Bream is both a reminder of the character of human interest – we seek to overcome our finiteness through the legacy of Works – and that of the world’s ongoing character – one that provides the broader perspective that human finitude alone cannot. Bream represenced the world as an aspect of the being of humanity. In his art one could find the most human of arts, the arts of living and dying alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for twenty years.

Fifty Films

Fifty Films: a Covid-19 project

My wife, having more or less grown up without film, suggested that we watch a fair sample of films ‘everyone’ has seen but she had not. Only fifty, you say? Well, there are other things to do after all. I’m neither a film historian nor a film buff, so for what it’s worth…

Canonical:

All the President’s Men (1976): Not unlike a Ken Burns epic where there is much early detail and then it leaves you hanging at the end, Redford and Hoffman break the story of the decade and then exit stage left. Still a good lesson in power corrupts given our Trumpist times.

Rear Window (1954): Irascible James Stewart and the perennially perfect Grace Kelly almost let their imaginations run away with them. In spite of her timeless beauty, it is Kelly’s gaminesque exploits that win the day, lightly echoing the period’s male desire for the feminine to become oddly masculine.

Dirty Harry (1971): Cop flick on overdrive features the debut of Harry Callahan, master of cinema epigram. Now did Eastwood make six films in this character, or only five? Guess punk, do you feel lucky? To have seen them all, yes, I do.

Vertigo (1958): Dolly zooms aside, don’t cast your lead and then later complain that he’s ‘too old’ for the part to be believable. What about driving down the wrong side of the highway, or that a national historic site is open at all hours, including its bell tower? The movie’s plot mimics its action. Just climb up and fall off.

Citizen Kane (1941): For six decades the ‘best film ever made’ maintains its relevance by capturing the character of the most dangerous type of modern person; the one who cannot love. Still a far better film than ‘Vertigo’, which for some reason has recently assumed pride of place on the A list, it was itself never the best – ‘The Battleship Potemkin’, ‘Metropolis’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘The Seventh Seal’ and ‘2001’ all come readily to my mind as better films. Nevertheless, the film remains a great work of art if only because the truth upon which it was based is yet more terrifying.

North by Northwest (1959): In what must have been a very mature thriller for the time, Grant morphs from self-interested ‘Madman’ into espionage agent as if he were born to do so. Aside from the ludicrous ten second denouement, this is still a solid film with many famous sequences and a clever plot.

Easy Rider (1969): Disturbing piece of ethnohistory is shot alternatively as docudrama and experimental. Its theme – our persistent and perennial refusal to even attempt to understand one another – is regrettably still current.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): Coming at the height of the Suez crisis, this still eminently watchable thriller exhibits the excellent chemistry of Day and Stewart, who appear to have equal agency and wit. Hitchcock’s women were always active and represented a slightly different ideal to the prevailing winds.

Network (1976): Still a reasonable, and very prescient, satire of commodity media. Pythonesque influences abound here a few years after that show went off the air.

On the Waterfront (1954): Early Brando as a naive but gutsy longshoreman is a solid film for its time, though you can hardly hear it through the blaring Bernstein score. Almost as if Lenny went to Kazan and said, ‘shoot me some background footage for my new incidental music’. 

Apocalypse Now (1979): New extended version to 3.5 hours has some interesting additional scenes that would have been good in the original cut. Still one of the best films ever made, in my opinion, but the so-called director’s cut is far too lengthy. Even Joseph Conrad would have fallen asleep.

Gandhi (1983): I may be becoming cynical in my old age but this epic left me cool. Amazing film as films go but repetitive and preachy as go narratives. Kingsley himself very convincing, Gandhi not so much.

The French Connection: (1971): Hackman and Steiger engage in one long chase video which includes the famous Harold Lloyd inspired car and train sequence – though Lloyd never actually crashed a vehicle in his chase scenes, just himself. A passable crime thriller supposedly true to actual case.

Remains of the Day (1993): Genius atmosphere but regrettable characters. Hopkins is brilliant as a complete loser and Thompson is basically the female version. A solid contemporary tragedy that just manages to avoid nostalgia.

Five Easy Pieces (1970): Early Nicholson verges on film noir, then in its third and final(?) phase. A slightly interesting character study that must have been a fair sample of such doings during the generational upheaval of the era. Otherwise: huh?

The Mission (1983): Still in my personal top 10, and me not of a religious suasion. Irons is exact in his portrayal of a living ethic and De Niro grasps this only to let it fall from his grip right at the end. Another true account, apparently, and certainly believable. Fantastic film and the winner of the Palme D’Or amongst many others.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959): Intriguing plot makes this archetypical courtroom drama fairly watchable and current in spite of its length and some dated and sexist dialogue. The fact that over six decades later women are still cast as willing actors of their own demise in many assault cases raises questions about the legal system and society more generally, which this film adeptly initiates given its time period. The snappy Ellington soundtrack and the moment where Stewart and Ellington share a piano also lend interest.

The Exorcist (1973): Almost coherent thriller spawned a new genre that has itself become so tired that the original views brilliantly, with Blair’s command performance well worth the Golden Globe and a should-have-been Oscar. Penderecki’s score adds to the surreal quality of the sequences while we are left to ponder the mortal weaknesses that mark our own very human descents.

The Seventh Seal (1957): One of the great works of art of the post-war period, Bergmann’s solemn meditation on the meaning of life in the face of death yet resonates underneath the shill of the mundane. The Knight’s inordinate pride provides Death with the latter’s in; the former sharing his chess tactic with an apparent monk. That one moment, seemingly too obvious for a film of this depth, reminds us that human genius contains its own tragic character flaw.

Sudden Impact (1980): This is the film with the single most famous line in cinematic history, besting the nostalgic turning away of ‘Play it again, Sam’, the fatalistic resentment of ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’, and even the ominous deadpan of ‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’. It’s not as profoundly pointed as ‘Deserves got nothing to do with it’ but it’s simplicity sums the entire human endeavor; its resistance, its refusal, its dare: it is what existence utters to history, it is what thought utters to the tradition. So go ahead

Non-canonical:

Goodfellas (1990): Scorsese’s personalist take on the gangster film brings a fresh view to the sub-genre, with Liotta narrating his biography; a guy who wanted to be something he could not, due to ethnicity and scruple. Another apparently true story and a decent film.

The Matrix (1999): Although it could be generously interpreted as self-satire, this abysmally cartoonish rescript of ‘Metropolis’ has one good thing about it: it makes Fritz Lang look all the more the genius he actually was.

A Walk in the Woods (2015): Gentle journey narrative places aging Redford and Nolte in the position of asking two questions each of us must come to ask: what is the meaning of a life well lived, and have I myself done as much? Since these are both existential and ethical questions, the principles serve as characters in the finest of Greek tradition.

Magnum Force (1973): The second of the Harry Callahan quintet takes its cue from Bond-style action and conspiracy but fashions it into a more realistic and serious ‘Star Chamber’ style plot. Eastwood plays his signature role ‘knowing well enough its limitations’ to make it both believable and entertaining.

Tie me up, Tie me down! (1989): Bathos and pathos meet head on in this Spanish tragi-comedy. Why do I wonder if the theater of mental illness and that of the pornography industry are more closely related than meets the eye? A very good film but one leaving one counting one’s blessings.

The Enforcer (1976): The third ‘Dirty Harry’ film is well known to be the weakest of the five but even here interesting themes such as the novel experience of women in the work force and doing dangerous work to boot are explored, with Tyne Daly, the put-upon greenhorn partner of Callahan, making her case for the later ‘Cagney and Lacey’ TV series.

The Pelican Brief (1993): In this barely passable political-legal conspiracy drama – melodrama? – the subtext seems to be as much about Julia Roberts’ ever-changing hair styles as anything to do with the now – but at least not then – tired opposition between environment and resource extraction. The film owes much to Hitchcock’s similarly gender-paired thrillers but this is not always a good thing. Instead of a ludicrous ten second denouement this one is ten minutes long.

The Man who Loved Women (1977): Truffaut’s good-natured yet poignant tribute to a now rather unfashionable sense of romance is both amusing and all too close to the truth of things. The ‘hero’ is very much a man I recognize, and this makes him more than himself, as it were, even if in the end he is immolated upon his own passions. Sound familiar?

The Dead Pool (1988): By now an expected formula, the last of the Callahan set yet entertains on the once. Eastwood himself stated afterwards that given his age there would be no more as the risk of self-parody was just evident even in this film. Still, a ‘swell’ series of almost archetypical character.

Marnie (1964): Sean Connery (still alive at 89), fresh off the first three ‘Bond’ films in succession, is still not famous enough to displace friend-of-lions activist ‘Tippi’ Hedren (still alive at 90) in the credits of this quite serious piece about child abuse and murder. One of Hitchcock’s last films has strong dialogue and is generally intriguing. It must have been tough on the audiences of the day, but at least the adorable Diane Baker (still alive at 82) really was adorable.

The Hit (1984): The absurdity of life gets in the way of the calculatedness of death. Like watching the Godfather vacationing in Fawlty Towers, Peter Prince’s writerly precision is far sharper than any would-be assassin’s eye.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999): A fluffy piece of inconsequential nonsense, much like the Kidman character herself. I rarely find a need to quote a popular culture critic, but Edelstein’s comments at the time nailed it: “Who are these people played by Cruise and Kidman, who act as if no one has ever made a pass at them and are so deeply traumatized by their newfound knowledge of sexual fantasies—the kind that mainstream culture absorbed at least half a century ago?” At least, given the film is based on a 1926 Freud-inspired novella. The only mystery herein is why Kubrick apparently imagined this was his greatest film. But ask me if I’m going to obsess over that mystery.

Meet Joe Black (1998): Ever-eloquent Anthony Hopkins cannot carry this twice-too-lengthy piece of sentimental nonsense. If you want an authentic understanding of how love can overcome death in life, listen to Mahler 2. Please.

Independence Day (1996): About as gripping as a popcorn epic can be, we are meant to be inspired by a global community that unites in the face of the end of everything. However unrealistic this may be, it is an ideal that is not only worth pursuing, but, specific to our own times, must be achieved.

American Gangster (2007): Another supposedly true story that explores the link between the Viet Nam war and a new generation of drug culture and use in the USA, as well as exposing the largest single police corruption case in US history. Gritty and yet strangely sentimental, the account was apparently so heavily fictionalized that in this specific case Ridley Scott may mean close to didley squat.

Monster’s Ball (2001): This was a surprisingly good film about persons who manage to survive the worst and find a new life outside everything they thought they knew. Not ‘heartwarming’ in the Hallmark Card sense of the term but still a relief vis-a-vis the human spirit.

The King of Hearts (1966): Excellent satire of social organization in all its absurd glory. The question of what constitutes insanity is thoroughly explored and sent up in this unassuming little gem from France. Features a youthful Genevieve Bujold.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1977): And speaking above of ‘huh?’, here Nicholson is a much more well-adjusted persona who plays Abel to his brother’s Cain. Perhaps this is the more subjectivist version of ‘The Big Chill’ of the following year, but a pretty sad affair all round.

Boost (recent): Quebec film about the immigration story is quite good, though inevitably tragic. The sequence in which Canadian identity is defined from the outside in is alone worth the price of admission.

Antigone (recent): Another Quebec hit retells the archetypical conflict between public and private morality, centered once again in the state versus the family. Definitely for young persons, it was still a good take on the narrative, though less convincing for older viewers given Antigone’s own tragic flaw.

Will you ever forgive me? (2001): Sordid but true story of a has-been writer who fakes famous writer’s letters etc. and then gets caught. Not worth making a film about but still entertaining.

The Game (2012): Mike Douglas ends his once endless streak of never being in a mediocre film. 

High Plains Drifter (1973): Shot on the abandoned Salton Sea in California, this is an early Eastwood directed film. A decent idea for a western and of course Clint is always appealing as the justice-seeker who has at his disposal unlimited means to find it. Reminds me of some of my saga’s characters.

Amelie (2001): This film became such a cult hit that it almost seems cliché on second viewing. There is something so very Gallic about the whole thing that is both charming but also frustrating. Love may indeed be innocent in general, but surely not of itself.

The Day After (1983): The most horrifying fictional film I have ever seen, and thus the most important. Though we are in fashionably collective denial about the greatest threat to the future, nevertheless that same old threat remains. Watch this film, just don’t watch it alone.

Documentaries:

The 24 Hour War (2017): The epic sports car and specifically Grand Lemans battle between Ford and Ferrari in the 1960s is eloquently explored in this fascinating set of interviews, archival footage and contemporary retrospective. Ferrari took the first half of the decade, Ford the second. Either way, a great watch.

All or Nothing at All (1997): My wife and I became instant fans of Frank Sinatra after viewing this poignant and powerful four hour affair. A heroic tale tinged with bitterness presented the man himself as both a larger than life character and one who nonetheless could not master that very life he came to represent.

Williams (2018): Wincingly intimate portrait of one of F1’s most famous racing families, living through both complete success and utter misery. Documentaries like this one almost make me able to forgive the BBC for cancelling ‘11th Hour’.

American Factory (2017): Top notch organizational ethnography about a Chinese reboot of rust belt infrastructure shows the conflict between two systems of labor and production. Practicing Buddhist billionaire Cao’s self-doubts regarding his actions ruining the world appear genuine, and thus one wonders if anyone in either Beijing or DC is listening.

The Road I’m On (2019): Oddly, this was probably the most disturbing film of the fifty on this list. Garth Brooks has apparently become some all-too-certain ‘family values’ propagandist due to his consuming guilt about missing part of his children’s childhood. I didn’t think I could so intensely dislike a celebrity, let alone the seemingly benign, or at least inoffensive and inconsequential Brooks, but after three hours it wasn’t a problem to shoot out the dance.

Harry the potter’s jars of clay

Harry the potter’s jars of clay

            In the wake of J.K. Rowling’s unabashed comments regarding the reality of sex and the charges of transphobia that were issued in response to them, it may be germane to discuss some of our current conceptions concerning human identity and the politics that follows therefrom. Ultimately, one’s definition of reality is at stake, and we will see that this is the truer import of all such debates, however popularized or taken to the streets.

            There are five major biological sexes in the human species, and the so-called ‘sexual dimorphism’ that allows for convenient categories is splayed out along a spectrum which meets in hermaphroditism – of late relabeled ‘intersex’ – the central variants of which account for at least one in every 2 to 2.5 thousand live (‘female’) births. There are no doubt ‘more’ genders than there are sexes, but who’s counting? The point is that both gender and sex are social constructions mainly based on national health policy and indeed the identity of the particular nation state in question. Biopower, Foucault’s simple but arresting conception of an originally bourgeois transformation of the older labor power, demographic concerns such as pension fund viability, voter franchise, relative strength and weakness of employment markets, and more darkly, bigotries surrounding equally moribund concepts of race and ethnicity – the ‘fear of a black planet’ thing – influence who we are liable to label a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. If I were a woman of any cultural or even individual construction, I wouldn’t take kindly to Rowling’s ‘offer’ of a potential definition of myself as ‘one who menstruates’. This appears reductive in the extreme while at once suggesting that I am the same as every other woman out there. Indeed, it is this urge for sameness while simultaneously drawing up boundaries of difference that is at present threatening to do us in.

            One could simply play at language, avoiding a deeper dialectic and thus also the confrontation that adheres to it. Perhaps sex and gender are both equally ‘real’, or neither are real and a truly hard-nosed scientific-minded reality has nothing to do with the human imagination. Perhaps sex is the old reality and gender the new, or that the former’s hold upon an actually unmoving reality is supplanted by the latter’s emergent identity politics. Or perhaps reality is itself irrelevant, and human consciousness, only partially conscious of itself and much less so of others, is the only arbiter of what can become real and thus also unreal.

            But I am going to suggest that our reality is in fact being covered over by such discussions, whether they are violently performed in confrontations amongst people who imagine themselves to be so different as to not share even an iota of humanity with one another, or more banally, literary celebrities and entertainers who imagine that their unstudied opinions should carry such misplaced public weight.

            Diversity in every known species is an evolutionary positive. Not only for that self-same species regarding its adaptational acumen given changing ecological niches either over the course of geological epochs or, in our own time, over a generation or two, but also for other species, as when humble fungi contain the key to cancer cures or other medical breakthroughs. Though cultural evolution as a theory of human cosmogony is a long out-of-fashion sensibility, one aspect of it that remains salient is that human diversity along cultural lines is also a positive. No one culture, says this view, holds all of the truths for all of the myriad of changing contexts in which we humans find ourselves. And yet each culture does hold truths. Though not ‘eternal’ – the mere fact that we can identify such ideas in history tells us that their origin too is historical and not so much otherworldly – they can nevertheless be timely. One conception that is apropos to consider during this time of too-easy offense and counter-offense is that of compassion.

            Compassion is an ethical hallmark of the newer agrarian world-systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. It is sourced in the then equally novel sensibility that each human being has an intrinsic worth, apart from one’s accomplishments, abilities, and most importantly, apart from one’s social status. This last includes one’s self-identified gender, sex, race and ethnicity, one’s role and job title, and one’s address and education, let alone one’s cultural persuasions. An example: it is of interest that one’s individuated tastes can make for strange bedfellows. I despise swing music and am certain that Bruckner is a markedly superior composer to Tchaikovsky, not that Peter Ilyich was a slouch. In these two things I fully agree with the Nazis. Happen to agree, that is. It is this happenstance of the confluence of historical identity politics and one’s personal experiences that fraudulently drives much of our current predicament.

            Consider that no white owners of black slaves exist in North America today. Wage-slavery aside for a moment, all these other folks are long dead. But it is also the case that white persons are less likely to be enslaved by what reaches out for all of us from beyond the grave. Yes, the dead must bury the dead, but you have to kill them first. Just so, how does one commit an idea to the ground of non-being when the vast majority of the very people who are most hurt by the current social organization of difference maintain beliefs in the afterlife? The overcoming of the ideologized politics of difference is both a recognition of human diversity as it is and not as we would desire it to be, as well as being the beginning of a self-recognition that I am also not one thing, not these things, not a ‘thing’ at all.

            Dressing oneself up in difference is not a way to confront the reality of human diversity. Only being with another human being in as personal a manner as possible will make one more aware of just how similar our differences are, why they exist, where they come from, and of vital import for humanity today, where they are going. Daniel Radcliffe responded to the author of his career freedom and perhaps more than that by restating the basic ethic of Harry Potter; that ‘love is the most powerful force in the universe’. Though Rowling’s epic appears to imagine love as an inherent good, which is only forgivable because these are books for children, Radcliffe’s well-meaning naivety yet touches upon the desire to get along with the others in spite of their differences, which in turn threaten us not because they are alien, but because they remind us too closely of ourselves. To begin to consider the other as a means to understand the self and my self as a means for the other to recover her authentic freedom is the first step to a world wherein reality is something that all human beings are at liberty to help construct.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, and social theory and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Desire to Possess through Transgression

            The Desire to Possess through Transgression: an excursus

            Durkheim’s brilliant ability to take the mundane and through it understand social structure makes this sort of impression. Deviance is necessary because it reinforces what is normative and we can thus know what it means to transgress without ever having to actually do so. Crime is thus functional, and while the judge, in organic solidarity, ‘speaks nothing of punishment’, he is still evaluating a condition which has been impressed with an imbalance. It is the same metaphor that is used in the health sciences, since the ‘body politic’ takes its Aristotelian homology too seriously in its bid to outlast the eroticism of bodies in general: “…we can say that in biology it is the pathos which conditions the logos because it gives it its name. It is the abnormal which arouses interest in the normal. Norms are recognized as such only when they are broken. Functions are revealed only when they fail.” (Canguilhem, op. cit:208-9). A hammer, to use Heidegger’s oft-cited example, is understood in its very being only when it breaks, fails us, becomes something other than it was fashioned to be. And so we too become ‘something other’ in this manner; indeed, our ‘arousal’ for the normative might be seductive in its own perverse way. Who, after all, desires the norm with the lustful ardor we bring to the taboo? The too-young woman is a cliché at best, at worst a sacrilege, though such a conception is itself akin to an authentic blandishment pronounced upon a sacrality, not so much of childhood itself as females mature at a far faster rate than do males, but rather of the idea that we ourselves should be able to regress so that the youth would actually desire us. This is worse than a joke, and all those who anchor close in to the official definitions of pedophilia – the American Psychiatric Association speaks of ‘prurient interest and desire for children under twelve years of age’ – are attempting to throw themselves across a backward looking chiasmus that has become in due course a chasm. While it is historically accurate to portray the sexual exploitation of young children, those who are not yet biologically sexual in any consistent manner – under most national laws, children under twelve can only have sex with themselves, as it were, and are not beholden to wider legal sanctions as are youth; this is a far cry from the nineteenth century wherein the bourgeois sense of blood and biopower took shape, culminating in our contemporary understanding of childhood; until circa 1892 in the United States, for instance, the universal age of consent was a startling ten years of age – as a figment of the bourgeois imagination, compelled as it was by the sense that it was the heir apparent to the aristocracy and indeed, also divinity, yet there is something more authentic to our protective and at least, official concern that true children are not exposed to eros ‘before their time’. It is, intriguingly, a successful measure of familiality that adults and older children do not exploit the young in this manner. The bourgeois family was understood as a seething crucible of repression, resentment, lust and violence, and in many cases, this combination of Dasein’s entanglements in the world of others was indeed manifest. But if this was the rising class’s predicament, only a bourgeois perception would have privileged its own children and more or less utterly forget about all others. The children of elites were a dying breed in any case, and could be dismissed. The children of the working classes were simply younger animals of the same stock as their parentage, and if they were sexually abused they would accept it as part of their ‘training’. It is only recently, in post-war democracies, that childhood in general has been granted the belated privilege of being sacrosanct: “This explains the problematic, or if one prefers, ambiguous nature of bourgeois consciousness. It also explains [ ] the contradictory reaction of fascinated contempt the idea of ‘success’ has evoked during the last two hundred years.” (Moretti, op. cit:84). On the one hand, the French Revolution ontically exposes a moment in which power is shown to be a simulacra of a certain kind of politics, rather than the traditional obverse of this. The bourgeois sensibility – I must attain the status of the aristocrat but through my own individual merit and not through blood; yet I must make sacral the blood of my class as something preserved and inviolate so that my children may also be meritorious – is ‘by definition’ ambiguous. The supposed meritocracy of bourgeois dominated democracy prefers the nobility of wealth to all other merits. In this it mimics more closely the assignation of divine rule than it would acre to admit. But all of this is old hat. The most important aspect of nineteenth century class self-understanding is that it took upon itself the mantle of authority and not so much power. This is also the age in which direct sexual abuse of children became surrogate in direct physical abuse, which lasts to this day amongst the ironically most recent social groups to ape the status and trappings of bourgeois life: evangelical sub-cultures the world over.

            Not unlike the developing world, which is seen as passing through the same industrial and technical phases in a series as did Europe et al before it, sub-cultures once very marginal to the bourgeois revolution are now in that phase of attempting to take over some of the politics and authority of their once betters. They have adopted all of the modernist rationales for the discipline of youth and cloaked it in irrelevant scriptural nonsense which was directed at only very young children, ironically, the very same age group that the nation state defines as chattel today. Such sub-cultures are able to display such oblivious hypocrisy only due to their sense that history in their case does not truly exist, or at least, it is telescoped radically from its inception in the messianic period to its end in an apocalyptic judgement. For them, pursuing the revolution in reality means speaking only of revelation in the imagination: “For a man whose future is almost always imagined starting from past experience, becoming normal again means taking up an interrupted activity or at least an activity deemed equivalent by individual tastes of the social values of the milieu.” (Canguilhem, op. cit:119). Of course, the tendentious and irascible marginalia of the Levant was never ‘normal’ in any contemporary sense. While it may have been that messiahs were a dime a dozen, the vast majority of persons in every culture lived without their credos. This was, after all, the this-worldly aspect of the Pauline injunction. Even so, as Weber has noted in detail, the ‘routinization’ of charisma begins with the first apostolic missions; begins in their wake, as it were, for the mission itself must be couched in a mimesis of the original kerygmatic experience, one in which acolytes must feel the sense that they too can be, or would be, ‘overwhelmed with joy’. But after the fact, one can only experience the glad tidings and not the being himself. Being, on the other hand, is to be found within such revealed truths of existence and is thus intended as universalistic in its ability to impart the same sensations and feelings.

            And it is this last dynamic that lasts, so to speak. The living-on through each era casts Being as a shadow over the past. History on the one hand, life on the other. Achievement and newness. For human beings, “…these two desires are not hostile and irreconcilable, but form a homogenous and complementary whole. Only the man who is always able to achieve happiness can [ ] do without it.” (Moretti, op. cit:112). ‘Always able’? Now who is that? Moretti immediately accedes to Freud; no, such constant happiness is in fact impossible and streben, which Freud referred to as a ‘benevolent illusion’, must be recast as being a dynamical synthetic term that brings together two things that are forced upon Dasein, ‘change and freedom’ (cf. ibid:112-3). This is more realistic, surely, but at the same time, any evangel raises neither of these. His version of streben is perfect happiness in the ambit of heavenly arc. This is the lighter side of evangelical satisfaction; the darker is of course that the rest of us our damned. As Natanson comments, “…there are some insults for which apology is out of the question.” (op. cit:185). His general remark may be taken however one wishes, as it is generally applicable to social circumstances in which all of us must find ourselves once in a while, but his conception of ‘noetic failure’, the phenomenological equivalency of what he refers to as ‘social aphasia’, fits the bill. Any reactionary or regressive social movement is proclaiming not so much the end of the world but rather their own inability to adapt to the world as it is. These persons are, aside from their entanglement with an imaginary history, or better, the imaginal cast as if it were history, are always already ‘abnormal’ due to their ‘attachment’ to values which have, in this case and to be fair, for better or worse, been passed by: “To define the abnormal as too much or too little is to recognize the normative character of the so-called normal state. This normal or physiological state is no longer simply a disposition which can be revealed and explained as a fact, but a manifestation of an attachment to some value.” (Canguilhem, op. cit:56-7). Now this is not at all to suggest that all those who do not publicly cleave their hearts to some antique religiosity are necessarily ‘normal’ in any way. But they are normative. And both behind and beyond this sense of what is ‘normal’ lies, as Canguilhem assiduously points out, the conception of perfection (cf. ibid:57).

            Perfection is not available in the this-world. Both evangel and once-born agree upon this. The latter shrugs this condition off, arguing that perfection is not necessarily a human or humane thing. The former agrees that ‘too err is human’ but that we should seek to ascend from this sorry condition to something higher. Perfection may not be available here, but it awaits in its fullest presence elsewhere. But the turning away from reality and the celebration of the inner life are the two most important aspects of Bleuler’s original definition of autism (cf. Minkowski, op. cit:74).  Evangelism is autism projected.

            But if that is so, eroticism, so often portrayed by evangelism as its patent enemy – apparently these persons prefer surrogate sex to the real thing, and perhaps ironically, more radically than do those ‘normative’, since they use their children in this manner under the euphemism of ‘discipline’, a fitting abuse of the word of which the Reich would have been proud – is autism internalized. It is a compulsion betraying itself through self-love, a sensuous narcissism that is oddly more tolerable to others because it involves them, even if only as objects. But to be someone’s ‘toy’ is better than to be someone’s enemy, the masochist argues in turn. This obsession (cf. Natanson, op. cit:264, for references here), because it does not compel the entangled Dasein to seek happiness or contentment either in the otherworld or in the underworld, but rather simply enjoins the other to join the self of self-annihilation – who, in the end, can resist this hortatory appeal when all of us are potentially alienated? – allows the Dasein to imagine that it has triumphed over delusion, specifically, the religious delusion. For the evangelical, sex is not so much a villain as a competitor. It is a decoy of the devil, perhaps his ‘pet’ decoy, to stay within the torrid vocabulary of BDSM for a moment, because the devil wishes to convince humanity that earthly life can be even better than that heavenly. Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ portrays this tension brilliantly and yet not without some sardonic skepticism as well. Hollywood and pulp fiction have transfigured a great artist into a half-man half-bully in their detective Harry Bosch whose ‘manhood’ is expressed at one point by him threatening to assault his own daughter (season one, episode ten). Whether or not evangelicals watch cop shows, this would be one to their taste.

            But neither evangelism, our somewhat straw man, nor eroticism, our somewhat stuffed shirt, exemplifies a ‘lack’. Rather, cites Minkowski, we are after a ‘difference’ because it is the entire ‘structure of psychic life’, recall for a moment, this is held to be a unity by almost all of our sources here, that is altered (cf. op. cit:248). What brings these two apparent poles together is that both religion and sex must be pursued as serious hobbies only. The ‘dreaded hobby’ of Adorno is metastasized into a pseudo-vocation that makes time off from work into a consistent ‘vacation’ of the spirit. This word is used advisedly; the spirit does indeed vacate the scene in both eroticism and evangelism. Like art, religion and sex, if taken to the nth degree – the reader should already be aware that the author has no quibbles with either in moderation – can be ‘taken under’ only if some other station is maintained: “In short, the pursuit of art is sanctioned when it is undertaken b people who have achieved identification with some other socially sanctioned role.” (Griff, 1960:221). So our unknowing and unbecoming selves go to workplaces wherein an evangelical or a BDSM artiste lurks, the one hiding in the light which blinds viewers to his ‘true identity’ and the other in the usual murk of the shadows, suitably cliché and melodramatic. Both partake fully of the theatre of comic books; one relishes his superhero aspirations – he has the strength and build to beat his kids, at least – the other his sultry villainy – he has the strength and build to beat women, perhaps, or maybe it is the other way round. Well done both! The only problem is that the rest of us are not inclined, as it were, to tread either set of boards alongside these would-be teachers. Indeed, all sense of pedagogy is lost to the one who ‘knows the truth of things’, as both the evangelist and the eroticist proclaim, the former to the world, alas, but the latter at least only to himself. And there is a good reason why neither is art, in spite of our indirect comparison: “The creative powers of teachers disappear because the teacher tends to lose the learner’s attitude.” (Waller, 1960:341 [1932]). Perhaps the closest normative world analogy to these extremities of entanglement would be the journalist, especially the one who heads up the media room, editors, producers and the like. Kristeva’s amusing update on Proust’s character Mme Verdurin is called to mind, wherein this ‘Mistress’ of what is fit to print is a vulgar Pauline figure – well, how much more vulgar than a fellow who exchanges ethnic identities, travels with an amanuensis with who it would have been culturally normative to be involved in a pederastic relationship, and then criticizes everyone else for being hypocrites will be left to the imagination or perhaps even to one’s taste – who can be everything to everyone and maintain her utter mastery of every situation (cf. Kristeva, op. cit:69-70). All of this “…suggests that the narrator believes in transsexuality, the idea that every individual belongs to (at least) two sexes and that each of us negotiates the officially unbreachable partition of sexual difference by way of an underlying, implicit, ‘involuntary’ passage.” (ibid:71). Transsexuality is itself a transformative concept; it itself has its own ‘transsexual’ character in the loosest sense, shall we say. If we are also charged with narrating our own lives, giving at least the air of existence to a biography that no one else would read let alone write for us, then are we not also faced with the transsexuality of personhood, the eroticizing substrate of an existentiality which knows itself as these changes and not so much as change in principle?

            Akin to the narrator whose Pauline burlesque hardens himself against not worldliness but the world, just as passion is available to us but never as a replacement for compassion, so an internal conflict is engendered, given bodily form, sensuous appetites, desireful urges, and the like. It is, in its either vulgar or overindulged sense, a grassroots claimant upon the breaching ‘behavior’ of any scientific or philosophical analytic: “Existential analysis, therefore, constantly has the character of doing violence, whether to the claims of the everyday interpretation, or to its complacency and its tranquillized obviousness.” (Heidegger 1962:359 [1927], italics the text’s). This is not quite the same thing as Boss and Binswanger would later develop out of Heidegger and Freud but the principle of non-acceptance of the normative world remains. This is, by virtue of its ownmost question – not, though, by virtue of the direction such questioning may lead – no different than Paul’s critical interrogation of the cultures of his day. Discursive questioning sanctions its own question, sometimes questionably, pending academic and institutional circumstance. But this aside, there is a socially sanctioned space wherein the question of Being might arise. Yet for the phenomenologist, this is merely another example of what is ‘tranquillized’; one does not feel the violence of the question from within the insulated interior of an institution. It is bracketed in much the same way that the authentic radicality of philosophical reflection brackets the rest of the world, object, other, and norm. For a question is not just an objection. In erotic action, objectification is part of the dynamic that does a violence upon the personhood of the Dasein involved. But this is, ideally, agreed upon as its own social convention. An authenticity of question, the question of Being, does not harbor in its action a ‘safe word’, as it were. This is more than restating the cliché ‘nothing is sacred’. This is more like a carnival, however Pauline in intent. It inverts the social order in order to expose its iniquities and perhaps also its vices. Indeed, it can use vice to expose virtue. This is what any modern erotiste, at least since De Sade, in fact does. The facticality of his repetitive and projected onanistic activity at once takes away any edge of incipient critique – the violence here is all theatrical even if sometimes physically risky; there is a reason, aside from our misplaced esthetics, why BDSM models are young and built like a certain kind of athlete – as well as confronting the ‘vanilla’ Das Man to at least nod his head to his own desires, however suppressed. Even so, we rapidly regress into farce, and much literature of this tenor cannot be said to entirely escape this same fate: “The narrator keeps his characters’ ambiguities alive, and he also engages in the inversion of values, either through the passing of time or by merging disparate points of view into a single instant. In doing so, he amasses contradictory meanings that produce a comical effect drawn from the inadequacy of meaning.” (Kristeva, op. cit:154, italics the text’s). Not to mention his own inadequacy as a writer, perhaps. For him, the reality of his characters is a parody of all that he suspects in real persons around him. What he suspects of himself he keeps to himself, as if he were the carnival landscape embodied, a Las Vegas writ yet smaller and into an interiority which objects to its presence along with the co-presence of a theatrical Eros. If the circumstances are pleasant enough – who would not want to have a young person worship one and service one’s every sensual desire, even if it were not real? And then again, whose to say either way? – then one could call it ‘time well wasted’. But the idea that time was lost, either Time itself or as in Proust, some experience of time that had thence to be regained though in a most circumlocuted fashion as imaginable, is debatable. We are told that Proust maintained both ‘the violence of marginality’ and the ‘grace to construct a world of communion’ (cf. Kristeva, op. cit:171). The nightmare one engenders dreams of the other, one might well imagine. The observation of the first suggests the vision of the second, and so on. Even so, it is very much the wider case that, outside of this ‘lost time’, Dasein runs along, tarries, is distracted, curious, fascinated, just as par for the course. One manifestly does not need Eros to extend, deepen, heighten, or yet transfigure any of these commonplace situations. So what then, does Eros as an existential critic actually and authentically accomplish?

            Let us begin again, in a sense: “Common sense misunderstands understanding. And therefore common sense must necessarily pass off as ‘violent’ anything that lies beyond the reach of its understanding or any attempt to go out so far.” (Heidegger, op. cit:363). Right away we have a reiteration of Heidegger’s two basic senses of the ontological structure of Dasein: one, that understanding is mode of Being-in Dasein, and two, that such a Being is ‘constituted as care’ (cf. ibid). Now it is not that ‘common sense’ – a term that is the unabstracted sibling of ‘human nature’; the person who uses the one will inevitably use the other and very often in the same conversation – does not ‘care’ about things. But just here, we have the objectively apprehendable duality that obtains between Anxiety and anxieties: Care and cares separate the authenticity of Dasein’s in-Being in the world and Dasein’s being in the world of forms, norms, and others. Of course we care about things! The problematic term is not care, but rather ‘about’. The denial or avoidance of the primordial structure of Dasein’s subjectitudinal complex is contained in the projection of Sorgeheit only as a reaction to this or that which is already in the aforementioned list of worldly realms. Heidegger is rather stating the Dasein is care, as the primordiality of its also being interpretation or understanding. But in reality Dasein reacts only when its own being is already understood as care. It is almost as if Heidegger is responding to Kant: how do we have an experience (in the first place)? How do we exhibit care or act caringly or ‘care about’? But there is more: “If we make a problem of ‘life’, and then just occasionally have regard for death too, our view is short-sighted.” (ibid, italics the text’s). This is, in a way, saying the least of it. We are rather more literally narrowed, made stenochoric, by this sense that life is to be lived apart from death – here is an in for both ‘common sense’ and human nature’ to respond at once and in chorus, heaven help us – and it is this lack of perspective, this myopia of which Heidegger speaks, that allows for time to be ‘lost’, whether through nostalgia, transference, projection in the analytic sense rather than that Schutzian or phenomenological more broadly, and of the utmost, through eroticism. In his efforts to narrate an autohagiographic epic, Proust comes across more like Augustine than Cervantes. For a gay Jew this would seem to be an error, at least of taste if nothing else. To be fair, Proust also should be credited with maintaining a desire for what is, on the face of it, despicable or even grotesque, so that he can show the rest of us what it means to inhabit the ‘deontic facticality’ of an absurd projection we call ‘social life’, especially one in which D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf were confronted with the same basic problem as was Proust; where lies the meaningfulness of intimacy within social strictures? What can be maintained of the reality of love, for example, which can only gain meaning through the reality of death – Isolde realizes this perhaps right at the proper time – within the structure of social organization as a whole? “It can be maintained only on the condition that one discover what was alluring in the fact that an object is horrible – or shameful – and, in the face of shameful nakedness, make shame and desire a single, violent convulsion.” (Bataille, op. cit:78). Violent, once again, because norms are here not so much transgressed in principle – this occurs during the contemplation of the act – but they are subverted and bent to the new principle of possession. Once possessed ,the object is no longer part of the world of forms, others, or norms, and though much of lovemaking and associated mischief may be highly scripted, Eros as a force is kindred with the neighbor, irruptive and perhaps even uncanny, as when it discloses to participant Daseins the reality of once lived-through horror. Even as it heals, it reveals that healing is necessary. Thus the horror and shame of unshared life is also revealed in its nakedness. The object is horrible, but so are we.

            Norms provide cover for their transgressors. The form in which such a blind takes place, takes over, takes cover or even undertakes to fake its own death, is torn asunder by the desire to possess anew and again. Both chicanery and theater aside for a moment – and who can tell the lover from the love? – what Eros itself desires is the dissolution of the personhood of the persons. Generally, even the carnival does not admit to this more radical understanding: “Where there is no such practice or understanding, however, benign deviation becomes malign deviance. To violate the acceptable social patterns is to put myself outside of society, to be alienated from it, to be considered obscene, insane, criminal, traitorous. My freedom is to be whom I choose within a kind of personhood that is never itself in question.” (Allan, in Cook, op. cit:26). More’s the pity, Bataille might respond, but of coursed pity, like forgiveness and guilt, is one of those archaisms that authentic freedom frees itself from. This is not a naked will to power simply due to the facticity of anxiety and the facticality of desire. Power desires but more of itself, but will focuses and restrains power because it, in turn, must be bent to the purpose at hand. At-handedness must become in-handedness, being-in to in-Being, the finite goal must overtake, or even ‘take over’ as being must do to Being, the absolute value. At ne level, of course, is the usual sense that one’s loyalty cannot be divided, at least in public, between self and society. This is Spencer’s discussion, inherited somewhat obliquely from Kant. It is still a reasonable conversation in which to engage, and if it is a trifle Whiggish at least it is not downright quaint. At the same time, the necessity to maintain what is also beautiful – though there is also beauty in horror, as the twentieth century attempted not merely to experience but also to celebrate; perversely, precisely because it desired to make the horrible itself horrible instead of letting the being of horror simply Be – constrains our freedom: “Because all human beings are subject to necessity, they are entitled to violence toward others; violence is the prepolitical act of liberating oneself from the necessity of life for the freedom of world.” (Arendt, op. cit:31). This is why, when political regimes retreat into violence, they lose their authority. Authority is always lost before power. Will might remain but it too does not endure. This is why shame and desire exert a moment of violence, because anything more would destroy both subject and object instead of simply placing them sous rature, as it were. I have used this transparent analogy before, but imagine a Durchstriechung in the form of the Reich’s swastika as juxtaposed with the Buddhist emblem, for instance. Place either over text, certainly, but go further than this; Eros as willed desire must adorn the beloved with some kind of effort at erasure. Not a complete success, for we do not desire the object of desire to simply be obliterated – this is not a private genocide – but rather to behold the beloved dressed in the violence of our will. She may resist but once again, as above, her resistance too is necessary. it brings the horror of desire to the fore, it makes naked the shame of eroticism. This is not the shame of guilt but instead the term used more like ‘is it not a shame that such a beautiful face should be contorted in the agony of ecstasy, that the ‘tears of eros’, to borrow from Bataille, should arouse me so, that her own objective nakedness should be turned to a prosthetic nudity, and so on. I desire to possess her, but on my terms. This is Eros naked, shameful, and yet full of desire.

            So while sex, and especially in our time, sexuality, may be a political act, having sex is prepolitical in the Greek sense that Arendt is discussing. Authentic shame cannot be found within its folds, however manifold. No, the shame of a post-agrarian worldview must be felt in the horror of inequality and poverty, very much real and not esthetic, let alone aesthetic, circumstances: “Everything that ‘justifies’ our behavior needs to be reexamined and overturned: how to keep from saying simply that thought is an enterprise of enslavement; it is the subordination of the heart, of passion, to incomplete economic calculation.” (Bataille, op. cit:105). Once again, tell me how this is not a proclamation of the humane, for humanity as a free disclosure of Dasein’s authenticity? Yet for Bataille’s scalpel and scythe, even here there is slight reservation; the term ‘incomplete’ might have been rendered as ‘incompetent’ if one took a different tack. Of course, there is a sense that all is indeed calculated, that suffering if measured out in proportion to the relevance of this or that segment of global society that will act, submissively of course, to keep power channeled the way it has been so: through national states of varying degrees of ultimate power. Now this is shame, and not ‘a shame’ or ‘a pity’. Now this is horror, and not simply horrible or horrifying. Now this requires little reexamination and much overturning.