On the Act of Understanding the Other

On the Act of Understanding the Other

            “…we must remember this, that the art of understanding adversaries is an innovation of the present century, characteristic of the historic age. Formerly, a man was exhausted by the effort of making out his own meaning, with the help of his friends. The definition and comparison of systems which occupies so much of our recent literature was unknown, and everybody who was wrong was supposed to be very wrong indeed.” (Dahlberg-Acton 1906:202 [1895]).

                The great challenge of our own age, that which imagines itself as verging upon post-historical, remains an historical challenge. The shock of the other, her very existence, both promotes this challenge into an orbit that appears dauntingly distant, but also demotes the value of taking up this challenge as something unworthy of our collective efforts. For the other is at first no friend. And yet the stakes could not be higher. Even in Lord Acton’s period, which is still very much our own as modulated from imperial colonialism to economic neo-colonialism, from biopower presumed to biopower desired, from sex to gender, from race to ethnicity, from labor-based classes to those status-based and so on, people were well aware of the historical cost, not so much of misunderstanding, but of deliberate disagreement for the sake of political opportunism and messianistic adoration. Like moving to the relative minor from the nineteenth century’s dominant major key, our own time has been modulated by these structural forces so that the otherness of the other is much more apparent to us, and much more troubling. There no longer is a ‘white man’s burden’, and if anything, fashionable discourse says to us the opposite: that the white man has imposed a burden upon the world that reaches out from beyond his own recently dug grave. Yet it was this very personage who invented the concept of understanding, after many painstaking millennia. Almost all of our philosophical ideas which aid us in coming to both the understanding of the other and what is also of the utmost, one’s own self-understanding, emerge from the ethics of the West, authored and thought out loud by the best of what is often considered a bad lot.

            If this sounds apologetic in any way, it is because abandoning this discourse means that we are thrown back over into a pre-modernity that is too sure of itself; its religious beliefs, its sense of social order, its political reason, its morality. The Enlightenment, the penultimate fruit of the tree of reason that was first planted some 2.6K years ago in Greece, is the source of historical understanding and also that ethical, for it goes beyond the sense that tolerance alone is a good enough showing to otherness as a principle, just as it makes larger the compassion that was to be shown, in Christian ethics, to the other as an individual. This is one of the reasons why Acton refers to understanding the other as an ‘art’. Art simultaneously participates in the universal and the individual. It brings the cosmos to the person without presuming to personalize it. It allows the intimate to experience the infinite without aggrandizing what occurs between persons into a universal force. Similarly the art of self-understanding, which too must attain a new intimacy in the face of an overwhelming and anonymous world, let alone the incomparably larger cosmos.

            If this is an ideal, let me suggest that before one can attain art, one must task oneself with the more modest act. The act of understanding the other is a beginning, but in our own day, even this appears to be often absent. We hear popular writers speaking of ‘reaching out’ to one another, of tolerance, compassion, even acceptance, but are any of these, or can any combinations thereof, truly generate an authentic understanding of the other as a vehicle for otherness? Here, I am using the term to connote neither the untoward nor the uncanny as such. Yes, both are present in the encounter with the other insofar as the first may be the case if we fail to understand something of her – she may end up presenting a threat to our own parochialism, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – and the second occurs simply because of the shock of realizing that another human being can in fact be so different from me that I am stretched to recognize her as human. The untoward is what we seek to avoid, but the uncanny cannot be expunged. We simply have to accept this in ourselves through the other as part of the act of understanding. For otherness also resides within, from the metaphoric rhetoric of the unconscious life, to the role stress and conflict that occupies our waking hours. It is quite enough most of the time and for most of us, to nod again to Acton, to ‘make out our own meanings’, oft enough without any help at all, from either friend and certainly not from foe.

            Just so, just now, we see that friend and foe are becoming all too clear, so much so that if one is not the one, one is the other. This is the very essence of pre-modernity in all of its diverse organizational forms. From hunting and gathering, through horticulture and agrarian means of production, the stranger could not be one of us. It is a long-germinating resonance of the second Great Awakening period (c.1790-1840) in the USA that American politics – ironically heralded as the most ingenious, reasoned and liberating if experimental dynamic in world history by De Tocqueville at the very moment it was about to turn inward and fold back upon itself – has seemingly regressed into a bipolar pre-modernity; one is either friend or foe and there is nothing, and more importantly, no one, in between.

            The art of understanding is the culmination of a series of acts which direct themselves toward a sense of self-recognition, thence further, toward a more risky comprehension that the other really is her own person who is under no obligation to agree with me about anything at all. Coming to terms with the other is at first a mere political exercise, but right now we appear to be lacking even this. Such terms are necessary in order for a society to function in its basic sense. We do seem to be starting at a zero point, or rather, restarting. This is due to the fact that what were originally very small populations west of the Alleghenies – it is important to note that the first railhead through this range was only accomplished in 1857 – grew at a rate similar to their political disenfranchisement. When agriculture and ranching became themselves marginal to the emerging industrial economy, these Americans had already girded themselves with a century of ‘awakened’ ideas. If the Puritans were intolerant and neurotic, those whom they pushed westward were idealistic and victimized. This victimology, present from the moment the new republic recognized itself in a post-colonial core, urban, commercial, capitalist, and seeking its own culture, has come down to us as a wider Western culture as the song of all those who suffer from yet larger forces; chief amongst them, globalization. But while Western economies are downshifted by the intense competition afforded by yet further others – those yet more distant and far more strange than even the neighbor who votes for the other party – the deeper source of marginality is the very history of internal colonization and the sheer geography of a land unlike anything one’s ancestors could have imagined. A big land required a big god, required a big man, required a big stick. But did it require a big State, a big heart, a big purse? Perhaps in contradiction with itself, the USA got all of those aspects of largeness, amongst others. ‘Very well, I contain multitudes’, Whitman famously writes at the moment the Alleghenies were pierced by the new industry. Whitman is known as the first truly modern American artist precisely because he recognizes the other inside of himself. In our own age, and contrary to any idea that emanated from that previous, otherness is not something distant, obscure, inhuman, and necessarily defined by existential threat, of whatever nature the corresponding variables may have been in one historical context to the next. But both the language and the countenance of this Great Awakening promoted the old ideas once again to the fore. With just as great an irony, the nation that was once the radical hope of the enlightened world in two centuries would risk becoming a caricature of itself.

            This is why the act of understanding the other must come before that very other, in reaction to our malicious mocking and vindictive vitriol, makes herself into the very caricature we had all along presumed her to be. The rioters at DC were the self-fulfilling prophecy imagined by all those who had marginalized them over the decades. We tend to make our own enemies, most especially, of ourselves. This is why the act precedes the art, just as an apprenticeship comes before any supposed mastery. We are not asking each other to become such masters overnight. Rather, we are proposing the modest endeavor of authentically trying to comprehend what the other really needs, what they think of the world, who they imagine themselves to be. That this is the essence of any human relationship should not be lost on us. For the others are also married, are also working, are also trying to ‘make their own meaning’ in the face of powerfully anonymous forces which are far beyond any individual’s control. The sense that globalization is alone the wedge that drives the West apart from itself is simply another way of pushing off on a yet stranger other the responsibility for self-understanding. If my neighbor is, after all, not my enemy, then the Chinese person is, the Indian person, the Muslim. These ‘strangers at the gates’, to allude to Kipling once again, have, like the rioters, found their way into our way of life. But they are who they are, and not caricatures, not neighbors in the narrow sense. So we must extend the sense of self-understanding, and the only manner of doing so is by augmenting what was originally a religious ethics with that of post-religious thought.

            In book three of my new trilogy, the newly conjoined Queen Guinevere’s final words to the major narrative heroine, telling her at once of the state of her own lover as well as the state of our contemporary love in general, are as follows: “She is alive but you must not delay. The power she has is munificent, but the power they have is not based on one soul, however great. It is known that Dvorak said of Brahms, ‘such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes in nothing.’ Take heed of this mischance, modernity, and choose carefully your nothing.” Our conception of love, and who is worthy of it, are endangered. It is because we have severe doubts regarding our own worthiness and on both counts; are we deserving of love and our we the ones who can love? ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ always carried this deeper caveat: it assumes one can love oneself. This is the ‘as’. Then again, to imagine that only we are worthy of love, our own or that of another, is to conflate the abstract ethic with the practical act. It is to submerge a revolutionary sensibility back into a revelationary discourse. What is appropriately ‘revealed’ by relatively freeing ethics from metaphysics is not religion but rather otherness, both internal to self and external in the other to self. Loving oneself includes the task of understanding that we are not one thing, singular, stable, secure in our knowledge of the world. Our global rivals have shed their own parochiality enough to step onto the world stage. Is it either reasonable or ethical that we shrink back before their example and turn inward, replacing what they were with ourselves?

            Enjoin then the act of understanding, which discloses to one’s own being not merely the presence of the other as if she were a distraction or an annoyance, a threat mortal or otherwise, but in fact the authenticity of humanity in its diversity and in its similarity. For in the end we are both like and unlike the other. We may also like and dislike them, just as we already know that we too are likeable on one day, the other on another. Choosing carefully our unbelief includes the ability to comprehend that belief of some sort remains relevant. Even so, of whatever ethic it may promote, the otherness of the other, the difference within, must become a part thereof. The currently faithless faith in ourselves travels with us only until we reach the limen over which otherness dwells. Today, that threshold is what separates the neighbor that must be, and not the stranger that she has previously been.

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

In Defense of Pornography as a Theater of Human Freedom

Senator aims to curb ‘violent’ porn, pitches mandatory age verification for online sites | CBC News

In Defence of Pornography as a Theatre of Human Freedom

            In the Mad-TV satire ‘What Men Want’, a woman steps into the original Mel Gibson role as the gender-reversed script ambles along its expected course, this time with the woman being able to hear the men’s innermost thoughts in her own head. The answer is simple, and in one scene, where the narrator says farewell to her dying grandfather, she intones: ‘I’ll miss you grandpa’. He replies, ‘I’ll miss you too, sweetie – (then silently) But not as much as I’ll miss porn!’. For men in particular this could be interpreted as a ‘me too’ moment, but however that may be, I will argue in the following why society as a whole might well miss pornography and erotica more than we may at first imagine.

            My experience with pornography-erotica, call it what you will, tells me I am consuming an aspect of base culture. As theatre, mostly plotless and with acting culled from an underground high school yearbook activity, it receives a solid ‘D’ rating. As sex itself, it is dull, stereotyped, unimaginative and attempts to win one over – whatever that may entail – with grandstanding (mostly) youth showing off. It is no surprise that, as with athletics, anything that so intensely involves the body as a physical vehicle should be the basic preserve of youth. And sadly, in our society, this is mostly what youth have to offer; their pristine and charming physiques. Pornography is in all aspects juvenile, from its representations of youth by those far older to its motives. It is at source about money and not about sex, so it is also essentially dishonest. Given this, why defend it at all?

            Though it cannot be defended as an aesthetic object, I suggest that it must be defended as an ethical one. At first, this seems a contradiction. While art is likely the highest expression of human freedom, attaining a status that transcends even history by communicating perennial truths of the human condition to and from diverse periods and variations thereof, the portrayal of sexuality alone speaks at best only of desire and passion. What is missing in pornography is the Gestalt of humanity; its passions, some certainly present, but also its compassions, which are wholly absent; its desires yes, but also alongside, its anxieties. It is therefore also not an ethical ‘object’. But what pornography does contain is a potent ethical objection to the self-imposed limitations we humans have a tendency to exert upon ourselves and others. Working from the simple premise that if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out – turn off the e-device but only for thine own self – any ethical objection to that which serves to place social norms and institutional orders into perspective must be applied first to one’s own self-understanding. As soon as it attempts to dictate what others shalt or shalt not do it strays over the line of ethics and into the space of fascism. And this is precisely the line that any call for the policing of the viewing of pornography based on age-related limits is doing.

            Creeping fascism always plays the same tired game, and it is astonishing that, given recent history, we are still attracted to it. ‘I’m not trying to shut the porn industry down, I’m only trying to protect our children.’ In Canada, anyone twelve years old and above is legally entitled to have actual sex. There are a few reasonable age restrictions between twelve to fifteen, but the principal is clear. Youth (12-17) is its own category under Canadian law, as distinct from children (2-11). The fact that youth are no longer subject to being forced into surrogate sex with adults through corporal punishment underscores this separation. France remains a rare European country that has not banned this practice, so is it surprising that it is one country cited in the above article that seeks to ban viewing of sexual material by minors? For the French, apparently, youth are to remain sexual objects in the service of adults and can have little or no sexual agency of their own. Canadians are better than that, and by ‘better’, I mean, more ethical. The call to criminalize youth sexuality is both a regression and an expression of adult ressentiment specifically against the hard fact of the loss of our own youth and the future of humanity more generally. But by calling attention to the nostalgic and altogether deliberately naïve idea that young people are somehow not sexual beings and need to be ‘protected’ from sexuality until they are eighteen, the fascist attempts to take on the guise of guardian angel. ‘Save the children!’ He cries, from themselves, from evil adults, from evil itself!

            Anyone who agrees with this kind of suggestion is committing the ethical error of projecting one’s own vain desires onto young persons. Pornography too exhibits these desires – ‘discipline’ sites are the most obvious expression thereof; why else would we be attracted to the idea that youthful looking actors should portray the very minors we are supposedly seeking to protect? Why would such roles always be those that require such discipline: physical, sexual, and political? – and in so doing it provides young people with an important insight: we adults want to harm you because you represent all that we have lost, including beauty, guilelessness, openness, and spirit. We might even hate you, but alas, direct hate crime is already illegal in Canada and thus we must express our dark passions in another way: limit your freedom, your sexual liberation, your mischievous fun. Portray you as disobedient pests who, if you can no longer be beaten in reality, at least you can be allegorized as being beaten in virtuality. Just so, to suppress your knowledge of how we actually think of you is one of the core reasons for banning youth access to pornography.

            All fascists fear exposure of their true desires. These include ultimate control and the possession of a singular authority. They too know God is dead, but unlike more modest persons, they’re quite willing to fill in with the hope of making it a permanent situation. Hence the real ‘creeps’ in our society are not so much the relatively rare on-line child ‘groomers’ or molesters but rather the much less rare closet fascist who shows us just enough flesh so that we are distracted from noting the bones in behind him. He always begins with seemingly the most reasonable premise and this ‘foot in the door’ technique is also dishonest: ‘our children are vulnerable’ (And why so? Because we tend to control and baby them beyond their years lived). He uses seemingly reasonable analogies which turn out to be spurious: ‘films have limited access’ (In public only. Anyone can view an R-rated film without the fear of invasive criminalization in private and internet viewing is always already in private). He leaves out his true demands: ‘I’m only talking violent porn, here’ (in age-restricting porn sites you lose access to all porn, not just the minor percentage of it that might qualify as ‘violent’). He represents himself as reasonable: ‘I know this is a delicate topic’ (So was the so-called Jewish Question). The limits which are in place walk the actually delicate line between impinging upon hard-won and truly fragile democratic freedoms and the advice of child development experts and discourses: here’s some warnings and judge accordingly; some children might be disturbed by this or that material, others not, or yet some parents themselves might be warned off. Indeed, if I were to support age-restrictions on sexual material I would place them between the ages of 12 and 40. Anyone under or over those ages would not be permitted to view it. On the one hand because, according to the American Psychiatric Association, childhood ends at age 12 in important and specifically sexual ways – their definition of pedophilia, for instance, runs as ‘having a prurient interest in children under twelve’ – and on the other, mature adults need to focus on saving the planet and its life, including one another. Enough distraction, enough fantasy. Pornography is an education, of sorts, and it is at best trite to state that reality and fantasy are seldom the same thing. The world is in the shape it is in not because youth cannot distinguish between the two of them. Ask yourself why it took a sixteen year old with a disability to call our wider attention to the climate crisis? Ask your very much adult stockbroker, financier, captain of industry, or wonder of wonders, politician, why it wasn’t they who provided such an alert, amongst others. And then we can ask why yet other adults willingly take on the role of domineering Lydias – a role that is, with ironic relish, only barely admissible within the fantasy of discipline-oriented pornography – intent on correcting our bad habits without respect to our freedoms. An educative pornography might well include titles such as the all too obvious ‘Handmaid’s Tail’ by Marguerite Göttwood, in which such self-proclaimed defenders of ‘morality’ can bare yet more of their sorry selves.

            If one wanted to construct a genuine ethical argument against the decoys of contemporary social life, pornography included, I would be the first to entertain it. It would first have to outline the activities sanctioned by society that distract us from both the existential profundity of human life as well as the future of our collective existence. These are: organized sports (ironically a ‘must’ for youth, supposedly), all non-critical entertainment fictions and video games (Atwood not included), erotica/pornography, holidays both consumer and religious – and, speaking of reality and fantasy, is it really the case that we can distinguish such days? – conspiracy ‘theories’ of all kinds, obsessions with speculative, if, in principle interesting, topics such as extraterrestrial intelligence and ‘paranormal’ events, and the like. At the top of such a list of unethical attempts to divert our attention from serious global conditions would be our neurotic compulsion to rationalize our resentment of youth.

            If made, such an argument would be valid across the ethical board. But the message we send to both present-day youth and future society alike is that we, bereft of both conscience and foresight, have instead opted to suppress the curiosity, the spirit, the very existential verve of young people who, robbed of their nascent capacity to think for themselves through schools, media, and portions of the legal apparatus perhaps to be extended, will be unable to avoid the very fate we have already set out for them. This satisfies us as well, for it will not be we ourselves who have to live in the denuded future of a well-raped Earth. Youth will pay simply for being young.

            The call to limit youthful experience of the world in any way, no matter how juvenile the material or knowledge, only adds to the sense that we have given up on an ethical human future. Shutting it down ahead of time, exerting a pre-emptive strike against the coming freedom of world youth, is the evil privilege of adulthood. And adults are, in fact, old enough to know that we either use it or lose it. We betray our truer selves as maliciously resentful oversized children in its use.

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

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 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.

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.

Between Two Worlds

Bartlett Island north of Tofino, BC. My first memories are from Wickanninnish Beach, Stubbs Island and Vargas, all to the south of this place. I miss them deeply and spiritually and return when I can.

Between Two Worlds

Travis Thomas: a case of microcosmic ‘culture flux’.

“Is it not better to use what thou hast, like a free man, than to long, like a slave, for what is not in thy power?” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. IX, 40).

“One of the great marvels of a number of human beings is their ability to shift from one form of freedom to another, when such a shift is desirable or necessary.” (Sorokin 1937 II:164).

            ‘Between two worlds’ is a phrase used by an Ahousaht elder to describe the condition of Travis Thomas, who was taken to Bartlett and Little Bartlett Islands in the Summer of 2018 and remains there to this day. The phrase connotes no mere material condition, though it speaks to the being who lives between nature and culture, or between the past and the present, and certainly Thomas is also living between these obverse worlds. But the deeper meaning of such a description is an existential one: it is applied to the being who finds him or herself between the realm of the physical and that of the spiritual. In cultures wherein the latter still has some suasion one can, in fact, find oneself ‘between’ in this deeper manner, as does the culture in flux more widely. But the enduring question is, does any culture today truly have access to a spiritual realm even if it believes that it does?

            A system of meaning, notes Sorokin, is one in which there are logical compatibilities within the culture and that these meanings are mutually interdependent (cf. 1937 IV:21). He juxtaposes the term ‘system’ with that of ‘congery’, in which the meanings thrown together preclude logical compatibility and appear to be but an admixture, a mélange, or yet worse, a malaise. In post-contact cultures, a common response to the shock of cross-cultural meaning-conflict has been ‘syncretisms’, which refer to a dialectical process generating a novel result; a contemporary and viable system is born out of elements of both old and new, obviating the previous and necessary flux between them. At a personal level, the hope that indigenous Wellness Centers, very much material places and not at all abstractions, will result in actual people maintaining a life-balance of both traditional and Euro-American elements. This may indeed be a practical outcome of their advent, including in Ahousaht itself. But symbolically, the plot thickens and we are unsure as to what outcomes might be expected. This is so because fundamentally, advanced social contract cosmology and contemporary technical-industrial capitalism conflict in every imaginable way.

            And the conflict does not begin with capital and its virtuoso of technique, its ruthless extraction of resources, its drive for profit and for the extension of markets. Long before such things were even in the imagination of Western Man the cosmology of pre-agrarian societies had vanished. It was first replaced throughout the fertile crescent and from Egypt all the way to China and beyond with systems of thought that placed the spiritual realm at a great distance from that worldly. Indeed, to mention the two of them in the same sentence might well be seen as heretical. The ‘worldly’ – a term still used by evangelicals as a negative epithet for so-called secular interests – realm was supposed to be merely a way-station or at most, a proving ground, along the soul’s journey to a higher form of being. Such ideas, much more historically recent than those that animated the traditional cultures of the BC Coast, have themselves been displaced. But it is the relatively brief length of time since they were dismantled by 17th century science and 18th century criticism, not to mention popular commentaries on events like the Lisbon earthquake etc., that calls into question the very anonymity of relationships in this our present day.

            It is this anonymity and the alienation that follows therefrom which is the source of most mental illness cross-culturally. The older ideas of spirit possession or more recently, naturalized gender bigotries – like hysteria, levelled in 1895 by Breuer and Freud, for instance, though in fairness Charcot took pains to note that hysteria could be found equally in both men and women – have fallen into the historical dustbin. The fashionable sensibility that many diseases of the mind can be traced to genetic sources is something I as a humanist have always found unconvincing given the dangers of reductionism inherent in all such neurobiological discourses. But how to call the shot when a person hailing from a culture whose own traditions in turn hail from a cosmic order not even one, but at least two metaphysics ago presents a rather different kind of problem. Here, alienation is something forced upon communities from without. It is a kind of existential ‘Jim Crow’ that gets internalized and thence acted upon. ‘Residential Schools’ – the very term is an evil euphemism akin to Concentration Camps, spanking, discipline, and the Einsatzgruppen (literally, merely ‘single or first movement groups’ or ‘deployment groups’) – were at the very heart of this enforcement for well over a century and a half. Now, a foul potpourri of variables enfeebles once vibrant and uncannily spiritual cultures for whom the division between this world and the other world was negligible if not nil.

            Indeed, the only way in which one could be ‘between two worlds’ within the tradition was to in fact be sick. It was the shaman’s job to track after the sick soul – the ‘soul-catcher’ is a wonderfully conceived (and aesthetic) object and its gloss would make a half-decent fantasy novel title to boot – and one hears of the ‘metaphor’ of a dark tunnel into which the intrepid healer would travel. On the West Coast, at the tunnel’s far and mysterious end, the puma awaited the departing soul. But she was canny to those whose time of transfiguration had not yet arrived. She might growl and send them back towards the realm of the people where the shaman could thence effect a cure. In a theatrical representation of this life and death dynamic, secret societies would initiate youth by sending them on vision quests and then work to return them from the spiritual realm into the villages of their birth. But birth and birthright are not the same thing, just as person and spirit are not. In this worldview, a personal birth is mere biography. It is one of an indefinite number of soul-cycles. It is the cycle itself that is each person’s birthright, gifted to those who have been born into late social contract cosmological systems. Today, the remnants of such systems worldwide face their imminent demise. The vast and dominant system of world-capital does not even believe that spirit exists, let alone anything more detailed ‘about’ its cosmic career.

            So ‘between two worlds’ today can mean, as suggested above, many related or unrelated things. In the case of Travis Thomas and no doubt many others, it means, from the outside, a person who is suffering delusions that so happen to not affect his physical skills and his memory of experience in wilderness conditions. But what does it mean to him?

            Ultimately, this is the question that is of the greatest interest for the rest of us, whatever cultural background we ourselves hail from. It is old hat that psychopathology places all those who experience the visionary into suspicion. Religious verve in general is a mark of at least a mild obsession and perhaps a projected narcissism if not worse. We can ask, forthrightly, why any God would harbor a human interest let alone an interest in a single person. A God is a God, after all. The mascot gods of the Levant, each ethnic or linguistic group possessing one of its own to the utter disregard of their neighbors’ beliefs – Yahweh was, interestingly, not unaware of His competition and made it clear not that these others were false so much as that His people shalt worship only Him; the very interdict implies that the other gods were just as real and could be believed in if one chose to break the local covenant – were as unlike to anything on the BC Coast as could be imagined. Across many languages and almost as many kinship systems, Raven was the most deeply felt Being. His wisdom was sought by all, and today we have a Canadian postage stamp bearing a work of art entitled ‘Children of Raven’, referring to these related peoples and cultures. Thus a child of Raven possesses a birthright to be a seeker of visions, if and when necessary or desirable, to use Sorokin’s terms. These visions are more than a window into another world, they are an expression of the human imagination and thus very much also one of human freedom. To simply lose them, forget them, or yet more strenuously, refuse or shun them, is to surrender not only to some more or less subtle neo-colonialism, it is to give up an integral part of human consciousness which animates to a great extent the history of the entire species.

            From the inside, then, from within the tradition and from within a mind that understands that self-same tradition, Travis Thomas is no longer in this world. He has become the ‘Bukwus’ or ‘wild man’, the interlocutor with the animal spirits and the settled people of the villages, the one who travels between the worlds but never actually rests in that liminal space itself. From the inside, he is not suffering from delusions, he is not addicted, he is not missed, he is not alienated. His suffering has transcended itself, as is the precise ethical purpose of the vision quest more generally. Our outsider questions cannot even be posed until he returns to the realm of culture only, the world of humans, and even then he may not be able to answer them. This is so because it is also part of the tradition that profound visionary experiences that involve existential transfiguration and perhaps as well the transformer beings should not be shared lest one loses their power and their insight.

            Wellness Centers aside, the deeper lesson of such cases for the rest of us has to do with the condition of our spirits; their merit, their strength, their wisdom and their character. Do we yet possess them or have we allowed ourselves to be dispossessed of them through the chicanery of politics, the acid fever of consumerism, the shallow shell of popular entertainment, all in an unmasked mockery of authentic religious belief? Thomas is pushing a point upon us, in a radical and even courageous manner, consciously or no: that we should reconsider our patent categories of mental and spiritual health and even what we patently pretend to know about existence proper, about life and death alike. If we wonder only at the wonderful, if we are empowered only by the powerful, if we seek beauty in the beautiful alone, then we are entirely missing that point.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of 38 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.

The Difference Between a Fact and a Truth

Arguably one of the best human beings at present, Greta Thunberg wears a face any parent would recognize. Our best selves know that it won’t do to be impatient with the truth of things.

The Difference Between a Fact and a Truth

                Addressing a transfixed multitude at Nuremberg, Adolf Hitler declared that ‘What is expected of youth today is different from that which was expected in the past.’ Such a statement is so general as to be hopelessly vague, but Hitler was aiming for abstraction on the grandest scale. He failed to achieve it not because the science of his day didn’t support it but rather because his idea of ethics was hopelessly narrow. Eugenics was considered a serious department of scientific discourse worldwide during much of the first half of the twentieth century and beforehand. The National Socialist Democratic Action Party harnessed a respected body of work that in turn had the direct support of much of the applied science community, especially physicians. No other profession could boast as many party members, which is a sobering thought even today.

                Climate science is supported by about 97 percent of peer reviewed publications inside its broad field. For all intents and purposes, this discourse has the facts of the matter well in hand. There is virtually no serious debate surrounding climate change and its sources. And this state, something of our own time, indeed charges youth with a very different expectation from what previous generations of young people, including my own, were facing. But what is this expectation, and how does it differ in principle from what any self-styled ‘visionary’ might imagine the future to be?

                If there is a difference, it cannot be understood along either factual lines or from those who resist them. In the 1930s and before, ‘The Jews’ were demonized by their persecutors, and were held up as examples of the failure to heed the facts of science. Today, those who resist the climate change science tend to demonize themselves. They often hail from neo-conservative bastions, are reactionaries or resentfulists, or are simply those who have been paid to shill for vested interests in the energy and clothing sectors. It is these last who are the most cynical, and we might be forgiven if we at first imagined that it is these folks who are most like the Nazis. We would be incorrect, not that those aforementioned resistors are the best humanity has to offer. Indeed, the fact that most public voices critical of climate science and the environmental movement are people stumping for a moribund politics makes the climate-saving forces shine all the more brightly.

                To our peril, I think. Why so? On the one hand, public resistance to climate science is seen as a form of ignorance of enlightened empirical discourse, just as were those who resisted eugenics, including the ‘lower forms’ which were the results of such ignorance. Not only ‘The Jews’ of course, but the Romani people, homosexuals, and the mentally ill to name a few. The brush strokes broadened, the canvas widened, and, befitting of someone who would have preferred to leave politics and ‘devote himself wholly to art’, Hitler eventually included the Slavic peoples, non-whites worldwide – though the Japanese were always exempted from this at least publicly; it was handy to have an ally which, at the time, had never lost a war – indigenous peoples or ‘primitives’ and many others. Once again, at the time, the science of these propositions went unquestioned even in serious circles and the ethics was left to be dragged along behind it.

                Therefore it is only along ethical lines that we may begin to distinguish the climate-saving movement of today from the ‘culture-saving’ movement of the pre-war period. Hitler attempted to assuage his would-be follower’s native skepticism by assuring them that he would rather do anything else, but that this had to be done and he was the only one who could do it. This too should sound uncomfortably familiar, as Canada’s own Green Party leader declaimed much the same sentiment in a recent interview, stating that she did not want to enter politics but that she felt she had to ‘save the world’. This appears as a noble sentiment, as it did for those who would later worship Hitler and only later still regret so doing. Though she remains my favorite young person simply because of her guts, Greta Thunberg urges us to ‘unite behind the science’, which also bears a too close resemblance to such calls that hauntingly echo down the unkempt corridors of recent history. In truth, we cannot unite behind any science. Not because it is not in possession of the facts, but rather because the facts and the truth are not the same thing. The facts of eugenics stated that miscegenation would destroy the human race. The truth is rather different, as any cosmopolitan person understands. The facts of climate science tell us that we ourselves are destroying the world and thence the human species as well. The truth is that we are asking the vast majority of people on Earth to remain beholden to a lifestyle hierarchy that favors those who are already at the top. It is claimed that wealthy populations stand to lose the most in the new order, which is why we resist the facts. But the Earth worlds on with or without us, and if other creatures could talk, perhaps 97% of them would tell us what we already know; that the Earth would be better off without humans upon it. Any humans. Vermin would be our only supporters, and it is sage to note that these very animals were used as metaphors for the ‘sub-humans’ in eugenics-inspired pre-war propaganda.

                The saving grace of the environmental movement rests along its inclusive ethics. All inclusive, as we have but one planet upon which to reside. Where National Socialism was narrow, ‘climate socialism’ is broad. This is its truer nobility, for it is the first movement in human history that is more fully cosmopolitan and seeks ultimately to redress the global imbalance of access to resources and the disparities of power that come from the current allocations therein. This is the only argument in its favour, and at once we understand why the voices for this movement do not argue along these lines. As did the Nazis, the environmentalists desire us to believe in facts rather than consider truths. That said, we wealthy citizens are after all culpable along the lines of the truth of things, and this in itself may be uncomfortable enough to dissuade us from peering to closely in the mirror. Even so, the climate ‘issue’ remains a decoy; a way in which to avoid the truth by trumpeting the facts. It is a treatment of the symptoms and not the disease, to use a medical analogy also well-used during the 1930s. The facts alone tell us that there needs to be less humans living on Earth, which also unhappily resonates with the former facts of eugenics. Once again, the ethics of say, the anti-natalist movement, do not appear to favour one ethnic group above any other one. Yet we can call into question any motive that cites only the facts and skirts interrogatives that ask after the cultural and political backdrop of such statements. China’s former one child policy was an exercise in factuality alone. India’s recent legalization of gay relationships reflects nothing of the truth of local culture and everything of what Michel Foucault referred to as ‘bio-power’. Russia’s disdain of gays the same. Whether cast as progressive or regressive, policies, movements, positions, and persons occupying such are at risk for covering over the always ambiguous truth with the stolidly stoic concrete of fact.

                It is our collective duty to work within the truth of things insofar as our consciousness can apprehend it. No region of truth alone is enough. Personal truths are often shrouded in subjectivity, those historical penned from the perspective of the times, past or present, and those scientific are too narrowly defined to offer a vision of truth that can claim to understand the human condition in whole cloth. What is left is thought itself, and it is this condition which has remained unchanged for close to three millennia in the West, perhaps even longer elsewhere. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to think our way through the challenges of our times and not rely on the facts alone, whatever authoritative suasion they may possess. It is we who are in fact possessed by the idea that someone else can do the thinking for us. The briefest glance at recent history is enough to remind us that this way portends death alone.

                Social Philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, education, health, art and social theory, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades in Canada and the United States.