Past Lives I have Loved and Lost, part 1: on mixing one’s metaphysics

If you have ever felt like you are living more than one life at the same time there are reasons for this. The usual suspects include social role conflict, serial relationships both at home and at work, and the transitions between life phases. But there is a deeper structure to our diverse sensibilities, and this has to do with the structure of consciousness, no less. Structures, plural, should we say, as there have been three types of metaphysics known to human existence. Their appearance is associated with the kind of social organization and subsistence pattern followed by respective human groups.

Transformational metaphysics hails from the period of ‘social contract’ societies; small groups, intensive hunting and gathering, pastoralism, and horticulture. Here, humans and animals interact intimately in a spiritual realm. One’s ‘animal spirit’ is a commonplace idea. Forces of nature and other kinds of objects also embody spirits. The level of abstraction and metaphor is low. Such relations are to be taken more or less literally. Upon death, one’s soul cycles back into the group at hand with little delay. Time is static and thinking practical.

Transcendental metaphysics is the hallmark of large-scale intensive agrarian societies. It is familiar in the doctrines of the religions that survive from that historical period. The gods are either personifications or abstractions, their communications with us are metaphoric and upon death, the soul is evaluated, either returning to embody some unlike form or never coming back, destined to dwell in some other realm. Time is cyclical and thought mythical.

Anti-transcendental metaphysics is the dominant mode of consciousness at present, and its recent advent is associated with industrial states and the rise of science. It is literalist, ‘realist’, and rationalist in its outlook. There are no gods or other realms of being, and no soul. Upon death, it is one’s material form that returns to the cosmos but it does so most modestly. Time is linear and thought ‘logocentric’, or linguistic.

All of this is old hat, but if you reflect on your own personal beliefs, which ones hail from which of the three forms of metaphysics? Often enough, each of us harbors an unquiet mix of unkempt beliefs and passions. One of many examples would include the sectarian person who is a creationist but drives a vehicle based on the same science that states evolution as a fact. We don’t generally even attempt a cohesive and coherent world view at the level of the individual, and we probably shouldn’t. More on this later on.

But at the cultural level it is a different story. Witness, for lack of a better term, the ‘naked kidnapping’ case from Alberta, where four sectarians abducted their neighbours, hoping to save them from the apocalypse. What next, you say? The two teenage daughters were arrested but not charged, which was reasonable. Indeed, if a church were to send naked teenage girls to our homes to ‘save us’ I wonder if many men would not in fact go rather quietly. But the prelude to paradise, perchance? That aside, such an event was inevitably interpreted by the psychopathology of the day as an aberration, and that the family suffered a rare form of shared delusion, in other words, something diagnosable.

No, no, and no. What occurred cannot be so simply dismissed at such a personalist level. This, and other less piquant episodes, are rather the symptoms of a conflict of metaphysical narratives. Transcendental metaphysics initiates the idea of history, yes, but also the end of history, the end of time. This event, the most important in this version of human consciousness, translates what already occurs to the dead into the world of the living. We are to be judged as we stand before a god; and naked, by the way. What occurs ‘after’ this is neither history nor time, but some other form of Being to be announced in its detail to those worthy of redemption. The naked family’s intents, by their own normative rubrics, were of the very best standard. They do not suffer from a mental illness, shared delusion, or criminal passion.

What they are, are anachronists, real ones, unlike the thespians who dabble in Renaissance fairs and the like, and cannot by definition be considered to be like most of the rest of us in any important way. They have, in fact, managed to construct a more coherent set of beliefs and intents – though they drove their unwilling victims off in a BMW SUV no less – than the average ‘normal’ person. But for this feat of self-coherence they pushed themselves so far off the spectrum of the everyday they cannot but be shunned and now, medicalized as well. Fine, we might say to ourselves, the rest of us have to live in the real world so also should they.

This reaction too is incorrect. Like a Pauline figure, the anachronist asks us ‘what is our world, after all’? What is the ‘everyday’ made of, and why? Why do we expect that the future is not only open-ended but also indefinite? How can human judgement be objective when the world is so diverse? How can one know what the right thing is? In a word, such a person questions both our metaphysics and our ethics and is, ironically, kindred to the thinker and culture critic. Now the philosopher does not abduct people, let alone doing so in the buff. Nevertheless, the questions themselves remain and they cannot be dismissed by mere psychologism, even if such persons appear to be so.

In anti-transcendental metaphysics right and wrong, good and evil, are irrelevant. Correct and incorrect, and perhaps even good and bad, yes. The first is based upon the mathematical sciences and the second on an humanistic ethics. These are the foremost tools of human reason available to us as moderns and they are impressive. Even so, the questions they allow us to ask of ourselves are quite different than those someone hailing from another metaphysics would ask, and indeed, would have us ask. Just so, we cannot know with certainty the outcomes of our ethical actions, nor is infinite certitude available to our evolutionary cosmology. We live in a godless, finite world of often cynical politics and self-absorbed hedonism; a world not entirely unlike that which Paul imagined himself confronting.

Which brings out both the sense and sensibility of the sectarian line: If the world seems threatening, then why live as we do? Why not change the world, why not save ourselves? This question has its origins in eschatological thought, that which promotes a self-understanding in the light of divine reason and the end of history. A ‘Kairos’, or arbitrary and yet decisive starting point, a moment where the world ends and a new world commences, is at the heart of the environmentalist, peace, women’s and subaltern movements. These quintessentially recent social critiques seek to both save us and begin a different kind of world. They are also immensely practical, for the end of life on earth seems to be a most impractical development. So how ‘modern’ are they, after all? The same question may be asked of ourselves as human beings.

In fact, these recent ideas are as mixed a bag as almost everything else human history brings to the table each morning. Their presence and their diversity argue forcefully that we should not attempt to be overly and overtly consistent within any one of the three metaphysical forms. The hard-nosed rationalist misses the mark existentially, the sectarian finds pragmatism incomprehensible, and the practical-minded communitarian forgets the larger picture and thus as well cannot accede to the cosmic question. If it is true that human consciousness has undergone three sea-changes over a period of some half a million years or so – its very origin, its shift into agrarian thought, and its recent upshift into that technical and scientific – it may be equally true that we as living human beings carry bits and pieces of all three around within our just as living and present consciousness.

So I am going to gently suggest that we remember to ask the questions a being from some other guise of ‘human nature’ would ask. Just so, those few who remain amongst us but appear as anachronistic must be introduced to the questions we moderns have invented and must, with increasing and dramatic urgency, respond to. This last is the metaphysical underpinning to any psychotherapy the two daughters from Alberta will no doubt now undergo; likely years of it, given that they stated they thought the RCMP officers were demons attempting to drag them to hell. No doubt as well, Freud and his followers have been called the devil often enough. However that may be, and whatever the outcome of such ‘rehabilitation’, unless we take seriously the critique of consciousness that emanates from the entire history of that self-same consciousness we may well be doomed in a much more literal manner than any sectarian had ever the literary flair to imagine.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books on ethics, religion, aesthetics, 

and social theory, as well as metaphysical epic fiction.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Course Evaluations

Lies, Damned Lies, and Course Evaluations

It was a rueful day, a remorseful day, when behaviorism began to dominate psychological discourse. The fashion of reductivism found in neopositivism gave it birth, the form of industrial production gave it growth, the politics of fascism gave it mastery. The interwar vehicles of perceiving human consciousness as driven by elemental biologies had its symbolic life in eugenics and its political desires in colonialism. It took over workplaces from factories to universities, and around 1989, in my experience, it spawned an instrument of social and pedagogic control in higher education called the student course evaluation.

In part a response to the transparent lack of accountability of the university to any wider social context, in part a bone thrown to students whose tuition costs were beginning to skyrocket, these ‘instruments’, so-called in an appeal to scientistic objectivism, these ‘metrics’, these ‘rubrics’, solicited student responses to a variety of experiences. Their main internal task was to document the feelings of the audience, the reviews of the emerging clientele – indeed, such instruments were part of the story of how students began to perceive of themselves as clients, consumers, buyers, rather than apprentices or even interested onlookers – but their latent function, the cleverness of their design and their very presence, was to pit faculty and students against one another in light of previous decades of university unrest which often saw these two groups allied forcefully against administration and government. They were a minor, obscure child of the abrupt turn toward a neo-conservative politics in the 1980s, brought on mostly by economic shifts that saw women in the workplace and public life on the brighter side, overall wage earning down and an inward seeking sensibility that attempted an escape from the public life of the polis on the darker. Sectarianism, the opportunistic politics of millennial ‘redemption’ and civil religion, the erosion of the middle class, an explosion in the arms race and its determined calculation of annihilation were the hallmarks of this period.

And calculation is the essence of reductive behaviorism. To generate a number, a ‘score’, by way of some dubious battery – dubious in the light of human science methodology and epistemology, dubious in the light of art, of the poetics of teaching, dubious in the shape of the transgressor of the love of learning, a red death irruptive to the masque of classroom drama –  was the mirror of this essence. Scores may be compared to one another, of course. A hierarchy of the good may be constructed. Ratiocination accepts this manipulation, but what do the scores represent? To what to do they refer? We are good or bad with reference to the scores. The battery of tests is said to mirror student concerns. What of the unasked questions? What are the sources of the concerns? Why are psychometric variables claimed to be the most important to students? Why do young persons demand control, organization, structure, information, predictability, skill, and timeless unthought from their mentors and their teachers? How have these forms of life taken their vaunted place in the consciousness of youth?

Certainly the world around us is unpredictable. Human life is by nature finite, uncertain, both inside of itself and in its projections, be these metaphysical – is there more to life than life itself? – and in its objects – entropy, decay, deliberate erasure, as in the concentration camps and asylum systems, as well as the leading but blunted edge of our political memories. No doubt, from the very first, humans have sought to control and manipulate the environments they found themselves inhabiting. Our skill in doing so is one of the greatest virtues of humanity, one of our ‘identity statements’, as it were. It defines us as unique, without respect to the great diversity of ways one can both subsist and exist as human in the world.

Of late, the sense that the world around us must be controlled has taken on a more desperate ardor. It has about it the aura of anxiety, even of neurosis. We feel we must know, and not merely hope or think. We must predict and not predicate, we would rather act than contemplate. When someone asks us, ‘How did I do?’ – the range covers everything from first dates to teaching a course to killing each other legally or illegally – we find it more comfortable to respond with ratios. The scores of the ‘kill ratio’ in times of war are of great import to training and tactics. The scores of student course evaluations influence career outcomes, wages, and personnel decisions. They excite the population of ‘teaching centers’, drive aspects of the ideologies of faculties of education, assuage students that their presence and voice ‘counts’ for something, and keep academics – notoriously unmanageable relative to other kinds of workers – looking over their shoulders. Most importantly, however, such ‘instruments’ push scholars to communicate the work of consciousness in a manner that befits bourgeois production and sentiment. Quantity with the gloss of quality, something that tastes good but arrives quickly, that has a similar effect as the dizzy-knee heroin of Disney heroines, and something that can be consumed with reference to social climbing – the accreditation of the middle classes originally aped their betters, starting around 1830 such new classes began to have the leisure time and wealth to become ‘cultured’ – such are the characteristics of transmissive models of education and the levels of their curricula in today’s university.

Shall we question the modes of production and consumption that give rise to the anxieties concerning certainty and predictability? Shall we question the sources of an anxiety that desires to control both itself and others? Shall we interrogate the battery of instrumental design that questions any attempts to lose itself in the compassion for human uncertainty, the facts of finitude, the breath exhaled by the dying?

In the gas chambers, the cyanide was pumped in through vents in the ceiling. Even so, the victims struggled upwards, for this was the only visible opening and ventilation. They died in a writhing naked pile of themselves, their children at the bottom. Their scores were poor. They had failed the test of a better humanity. They had not evolved, or socially climbed, high enough to avoid their ‘deserved’ fate. Thus they were in the way of ‘progress’. They represented the uncertainty, the undertones, the subterranean presence of what ratiocinated anxiety demands become absent. They were anthropological alterities, their afterlives to be avoided, their after-effects to be extinguished. Such a presence, containing its own non-presence unnerving and surreal seen in the light of the fascism of numeric nothingness, can only be overcome by an even more uncanny response that in fact makes evil what was before merely uncontrollable and unavoidable difference.

Before teaching to the demands of organization, structure, control, lightheaded language and heavy-set hierarchy; before testing your abilities as pedagogues through the use of instruments designed to celebrate specific and narrow sets of outcomes; before committing your own creativity and that of your students to a premature burial under the sediment of psychometrics and the sentiment of a greeting card, consider dispensing with quantifiable evaluations of all kinds. Ask your community of learners to write about their experiences and how they have shaped their perception of the world and of themselves. If such responses have a place in managing professors, we will be better able to understand why what we attempt to do in the classroom and elsewhere has some serious meaning.

Wandering with One’s Shadow

Wandering with One’s Shadow

Each of us possesses a darker side. We try, through the norms of civility, to simply not be possessed by it. But these attempts, mostly successful both as persons and within a society at large, do not prohibit us from being possessed of our own shadow. We wander alongside it, as Nietzsche famously commented upon, yet never wholly within it. If the shadow itself has a penumbra, then it is us who dwell more or less comfortably in its shade. But every now and again we step more fully into the shadows that tarry along by our side. Recognizing this is neither a matter of psychopathology nor a shill for therapy of any kind. Rather, it is simply to understand part of ourselves, an aspect of our own humanity which in every case is already and always my own.

Anger and fear are the usual suspects when we try to identify the reasons why we ‘stray’ into the twilit aegis of such an altered state. These themselves have long been identified with our animal background. But is a mere animal the same thing as a beast? Both terms have collected much metaphoric baggage over the millennia. Such connotations were also routinely extended to certain non-Western versions of ourselves, ‘savages’ either noble or ignoble. But the imperial distanciation of otherness in Western consciousness had also more recently been interpreted as an acknowledgement that what we hold within us, however civilized the veneer, is no different in kind from that of the lowest forms of life. The fin de siècle period of recent European history bears witness to this shock of recognition, from Conrad to Freud and beyond. Along with the unutterable dread of savage thought came the unbearable sense that repression was the only possible response. The great efflorescence of psychopathology during this period is hardly a coincidence.

These days, we take a more pragmatic approach to dealing with our ‘inner demons’. A combination of concise legal boundaries and self-esteem seminars is generally enough to deter the beast within. Indeed, such a thing, if it may be said to exist elsewise from ourselves, is relegated to its own shadows, as if the penumbra of personhood had its own Doppelgänger that lay in wait to shock us out of our complacency. None of this really makes any sense other than within the frisson of dubious fiction. What we can work with is the idea that norms are there for a reason, and people can’t do what they desire to do at all times, in all places, and with all others. That norms concede their territory based on the lowest common denominator, especially those that have to do with legal contexts, can’t really be helped. We also know, that alongside ourselves and our own shadow, stroll the shadows of all the others, intimate and strange both, wandering along with us and, we might imagine, always at the ready to trespass against us. It’s better not to ‘start something’, as the colloquialism has it, for unless you are prepared and skilled enough to dispose of the body afterwards, then the game is not worth the price.

On top of this, there is the internalized template of social norms with which almost all of us must deal. We call it one’s conscience. There’s nothing otherworldly about it. Indeed, it is solely based on the relationships we have, and most of us feel, we must maintain in this world as it presents itself. Since we neither have our personal beginnings within the ambit of the origin of the world, nor do we die with it – even nuclear annihilation might in some far future epoch be overcome by different forms of life on earth – the world is manifestly not our own. This is important. It is one of the key features of maturity and one of the things that all children must learn, the sooner the better for the rest of us, in order to matriculate to adulthood. Of course, such a lesson is hardly one that takes hold overnight. For males, especially in the West, it seems that it can take up to sixty years or so, for females, perhaps forty. Yet in one sense it is not only a key lesson, but the most important thing. Otherwise, we dimly understand that human life would be unlivable and that our private worlds, extant only within our heads, would constantly and often violently collide with those of others. That we prevaricate this at the level of the nation-state is a sad enough commentary on our inability to mature as a species at a more responsible pace, but it is also something of a safety valve that permits individuals to maintain social relationships outside of the shadows that attend to them at every turn. It may seem rather pathetic to say that tribalism – the sense that we as citizens should ‘stick together’ if only in the face of external threat – has a positive social function. But given our knowledge of our own history, we prefer today than yesterday, and are rightly suspicious of anyone or any group that desires to retrogress. Perversions of neo-colonialism as these movements may be, nevertheless they remain perverse.

And perversion is the term we often favour to bestow upon any and all who deviate from socially sanctioned norms and codes, whether the law, the policies of workplace or school, or for some still, the tenets of a religion. Though we go to war over resource competition and social control of transient populations etc., we do attempt to recognize the general depravity of war. It has become, at worst, a necessary evil. (It is sage to note that not all governments think this way, and the West is thus placed at a disadvantage because it has, after Nuremberg, mostly lost the stomach to make war for any cause). Since outright violence can be arrested only by a further violence, we imagine that only with the correct rationalization can we forgive ourselves afterwards and state starkly that ‘we did what had to be done’. We rejected this defense at Nuremberg, but still routinely use it for both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which remain two trenchant and billowing shadows that must walk alongside our sense of both our Western and our technical personas. They walk with us simply due to the fact that we maintain these kinds of weapons today. No society keeps a tool unless they think they will use it.

Which is why, for instance, I don’t own a gun. I can’t truly trust myself not to use it. Anger, fear, or even an aghast propriety might be the motivation. I know my own shadow well enough after walking with it and indeed, sometimes within it, over a half century of human life. It’s as much who I am as the norms that prevent it from seeking too permanent an ascendancy. And each of us might say as much. To understand the interest in personal weapons is to understand something of the shadow-being with whom we box. It is usually a friendly enough bout because it is about aspects of the unique being that is always my own. I am not fighting an ‘urge’, or yet a ‘perversion’. It is not deviant to desire the death of the Other, conceptually, only that of specific others. But there’s the rub, as is said: unless we have come to know another in the slightest fashion, he or she is bounded by the problem of generalized otherness that is in fact the most threatening thing of all.

I recently watched a documentary on Reinhard Tristan Haydrich, billed as Hitler’s successor before Churchill manufactured a successful assassination plot. He was by far the most intelligent of an otherwise sadly dimwitted lot of executives, and Churchill with his usual insight got him murdered before his skills hit the ground running. But not merely his skills; his ideas were far more dangerous. This because they represented what most of us feel in times of crisis to be the ideal way of dealing with conflict: destroy the other before he destroys me. As I watched I found, to my chagrin, a growing empathy for ‘the blond beast’, as his peers nicknamed him. By contrast, the documentary sub-title referred to him as the ‘god of death’.

And we’re right back where we began. The beast within us, the fear of death. Of all history’s recent villains and heroes, and it is also sage to note that this label changes over time according to our contemporary druthers – Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, Malcolm X and Ché Guevara all bear popular culture testament to this – I had to admit to myself that I admired Haydrich the most when I felt the pressing presence of my own shadow. This presence always provokes a moment of utter honesty in oneself. As a thinker, my duty is to the truth of things, whether scientific, historical, or personal. But there are also, beyond all of these, ethical truths, the combined weight of which reminds us that there is no simple truth that would unburden us of the task of being human, which includes that of historical consciousness. No one, even the most versed and insightful thinker, can claim to know the truth of things.

Given this, we must turn, or be turned, towards an other and in turn demand of him or her to aid in the project of coming to know each other as simply another. Another human being on much the same road as ourselves. Another consciousness who also has their shadow not so different in scope than mine, and finally, another upon whom we should be able to rely to defy alongside us the gravity of our mortal coil, not only for the time of personal being, but for the sake of the human future itself.