Indwelling versus Entanglement: person or citizen, neighbor or censor?

Resoluteness, a concept at the heart of Heideggerean ethics, resolves to provide for itself no real resolution. It also solves nothing. What it does do is resolves to face down the nothingness by which Dasein imagines it is threatened, and in so doing, forgets itself. If this is bewildering for us, then it is due to the problem of life giving us the ability to live in the present. Too much history and we would not now how to think of even the day at hand. If on could not forget anything at all, one could never experience anything new or anew.

And yet because we have ourselves lived those past times and we were there, there is still a puzzle: “This bewilderment is based upon a forgetting.” (1962:392 [1927], italics mine). Yes, a specific kind of forgetting that in fact evades resoluteness, we are told. Dasein’s ‘potentiality’ is put on hold, and we ‘leap from the next to the next’ (ibid). This is how we leave what is still present; we are not ‘in’ the environment any more, we do not dwell within it, there is no such moment of indwelling that characterizes Dasein’s actual ownmost possibility and facticity. This is instead replaced by entanglement. In turn, this aids the very kind of forgetting that started the process: “The possibility of memory depends on the continued existence of the past; nothing in the actual present explains memory.” (Lampert 2012:142). It may not ‘explain’ it insofar as the present as it is never contains the source material for the memory content, but nevertheless allows it because having a memory is something that we have in the present. In this way one can agree with Husserl’s explicative statement regarding the character of memory in general where “…the antithesis of perception is primary remembrance, which appears here, and primary expectation (retention and protention [respectively]), whereby perception and non-perception continually pass over into one another.” (1964:62 [1905], italics the text’s). It is reasonable to state that neither memory nor anticipation are the same as perception per se, and yet both are still perceived in some manner, otherwise we would have no ability to recall anything at all nor would here be a sense of the future. Dasein would lose on of its ontological ‘faculties’, its being-able-to-be ‘ahead of itself’.

Indeed, we are told that Dasein does not possess this ability in the way we would something at hand or in hand, but rather simply is ahead of itself. So a memory must in some ways aid this being. It is self-evident that anticipation does, or at least, is its outcome, but memory? These may be relived as ‘peaks’ or linger as ‘sheets’ (cf. Lampert on Deleuze, op. cit:164), but whatever terminology we utilize, there must be a characteristic facility and indeed, faculty, that allows what we think of the as the past to not place us ‘behind ourselves’. Minkowski provides the first clue to this apparent puzzle, in which the lack of memory subverts and even outright sabotages the ability to think ahead: “…the form of mental life which we term memory deficiency is dominated, not by a momentary, instantaneous now, as one would expect, but on the contrary, in certain cases at least, by the principle of unfolding in time, functioning in a void.” (op. cit:381). What exactly is this ‘unfolding’, and what, in turn, is being unfolded? Clinging to something or other, clasping it to one’s anxious breast, clambering about, as we will see below, but not ascending, or yet climbing down with a view to lose the view one already had, folds us in on ourselves. This is uncomfortable no matter what kind of metaphor we employ, so one must back out. In doing so, in order to not regain either the perspective of the present or the ‘being-aheadedness’ of one’s ontological structure – though of course this doesn’t vanish just because we have vanished from whatever scene is at hand – we unfold ourselves only in time, but not in any kind of recognizable space. The void carries within it the simple and yet profound lack of perspective, by definition. At a personal level, unfolding in the manner about which Minkowski speaks is a debasement of Dasein, though it does follow a pattern: “This logical process of debasement and profanation is linked to another process that it must reinforce in order to eliminate it.” (Kristeva 1996:14 [1993]). Here the ‘sinner is turned into a saint’, even if Kristeva shortly thereafter describes this narrative trope as a mere cliché, which it is. Proust’s ‘woman-cake’ – such pastries are often called ‘madeleine’s in France, just so, the made-to-order ‘Marie-madeleine’ and thence the rest of its tired trope – is an example of the bracketing of actual ambiguity in order to objectify not the presence so much as a kind of presentation. This is theatre, surely, but it is also myth.

Whatever satisfaction we may have gotten from the mother, whatever threat we may have survived from the father or their surrogates, the church on the one hand, the state on the other perhaps, regression is itself based upon keeping close to us a certain flavor of both. But “Because these split-off aspects of the parent’s ego are governed by repetition compulsion, they are acted out repeatedly upon the child.” (Shabad 1989:106). In turn, we gradually construct a persona of personhood based upon these fragments that we have found to be ironically the most extreme, and therefore the most memorable, that later denudes the full Dasein of its potentiality-for-being’ in way different from that of the false forgetting. This is “…An identity perversely based on all those identifications and roles which, at critical stages of development, had been presented to the individual as most undesirable or dangerous, and yet, also the most real.” (Erikson 1960:61 [1956]). Here, memories such as these cannot be plainly and simply forgotten. They have to first be reinforced in order to be eliminated, in a manner uncannily like how they came to be present in the first place. Within this process lies the at-handedness of entanglement, for in reinforcing these memories, bringing them into a fuller presence, we risk becoming addicted to this stage alone, all the while rationalizing it as a first step ‘out’.

Regression is a too easy moment. Its moment is that of a momentum that appears to us as momentous. In a society wherein juvenile behavior and the viewpoint of adolescence is celebrated, is the main market target, and is lengthened perhaps decades after its primary purpose has been met, regression is, quite literally, everywhere: “But in any event, the permanent object concept is stabilized by the period of adolescence and therefore the inner concept of the actual parent is not given up.” (Pine 1989:162). We do not wish to give it up, because early on, the parent is perceived as being what we should be. Many parents, though fewer today than in the past, actively encourage their children to ape themselves, either in personality, vocation, or even ideologically. This only adds to the problem already present. It is debatable whether or not the analytic school has identified ‘deeper’ processes of such identifications in the sado-sexual or surrogate-sexual modes, but however that may be, it does not matter for a phenomenological argument. Ideology, for instance, can run quite deep in a person’s attitudinal matrix, and certainly the personality or ‘esteem’ by which we hold ourselves together on many fronts, public and private, is deeply held as well. Regression as a the chief perpetrator and phenomena of the externality of remorse desires this strangeness that has come over it. Unlike this or that stigmatized ethnic or linguistic group, we want to be a stranger to ourselves. We are patently evading the responsibility to confront our ownmost possibility, in death or some other major life-transfiguration, so we cannot in all conscience say that we are “… a stranger who does not wish to be a stranger.” (Antonovsky 1960:428). No, we are more akin to the ‘cat’ than the ‘Jew’: “Within in his own isolated social world, the cat attempts to give form and purpose to dispositions derived from but denied an outlet within the dominant social order.” (Finestone 1960:439 [1957]). This ‘denial’ in fact comes from within us. In the everyday realm of both the ontic and, perhaps over against Heidegger’s claims, the inauthentic as well, the spectrum between doing what one ‘has’ to do and one’s desires includes things like the ‘hobby’ and the perversion alike. ‘Cats’ in fact have day jobs, those who retire can do so with the calm assurance of being about to follow the call of a narrowed set of desires. The issue at hand is really more along the lines of youth having to confront the fullness of every human desire. Indeed, one could almost equally say that the innocent and the corrupt both are conjured by the dreamtime of youth alone.

Which is perhaps the more structural reason why sexual desire, for instance, often turns to regression and this regression needs not be kept secret at all. It is transparent that youth have these desires and are suppressed by the ‘dominant’ order generally due to our ressentiment regarding the loss of our own youth. Sexuality is repressed, yes, but not the regression by which it makes its self-remorse external. No, indeed, adults want to see the manifestation of this repression in young people. We celebrate it as our victory and ours alone: “This reveals nothing less than a desexualization of sex itself. Pleasure that is either kept cornered or accepted with smiling complaisance is no longer pleasure at all.” (Adorno, op. cit:73). We are now seeing the first foreshadowing of our third topic, that of nostalgia, for within all of this external suppression and thence internal repression, the process of remorseful regression takes refuge in fantasy. Sex is, after all, one thing. Any aspect of one’s youth – and recall just here how modernity is founded on both the advent of youth and its immediate alienation – including non-responsibility, some disposable income, and the much more serious experiences such as wonder and the newness of things, is lost along the way to adulthood. Adulthood too, it must also be recalled, is not at all the same thing as maturity. It is more or less a coincidence that maturity can only come within the period of life we call adulthood (or yet perhaps ‘old age’),  given our extended phases of life in contemporary technological society. But whenever ‘mature being’ provides for us authentic indwelling, it is also clear that we have lost a great deal both petty and profound, and this in turn provokes an unhealthy politics of ‘restoration’, not unlike the reaction that lashes back at any revolutionary period: “Mainly because man must surrender to the generalizing institution, he continually searches for his own individuality and the lost possibilities of childhood.” (Meerloo 1960:516 [1958]). It is somehow odd to speak of possibility being ‘lost’. Does not the very conception entail its indefinite open-endedness? What has been only possible surely remains possible no matter what. It retains, as against even the probable and self-evidently the certain, its choate temporal and existential structure. Yes, it too is part of the human imagination, so what is more likely actually being lost through the process of maturation – not maturity, mind you – is precisely imagination and all this implies. ‘Man’ too is already generalized, even institutional, but this is clearly not what Meerloo is getting at. One does after all not attempt to individualize ‘Man’ but rather oneself. So personhood must give way to persona.

Social role theory explicates this transition and dynamic so very well that we forget to examine or even take into account such losses. The presence of both role strain and role conflict obviates the need to do so, for we are assured by this analytic that the person is indeed a complex of roles and nothing more. But at the very least, the modern person, the ontic version of Dasein, adds to its role set not so much nothing more, but Nothing more. And it is this Nothing that is the source of both Anxiety and regret. Roles offer up the potential for regression, remorsefulness, and regretfulness, taking place, as we have seen, both internally and externally. There is a Nothing alongside the set of social roles. It is, on the lighter and more ethical side of things, also the source of the neighbor. The spontaneous and unthinking action of the non-role and even anti-socius neighbor figure  comes out of Nothing and retreats there once the deed is done. Whatever resonates is a function of memory and thus easily slides into nostalgia, as we will see in part three below. Unthinking, yes, but what about? About one’s set of roles. The neighbor in fact does think, but this is space of the uncooked thoughts of humankind and human kindred. It is an I who is suffering and not a you, or a we and not a them. The neighbor has allies in others’ ability to emerge from the Nothing that all of us share tacitly together.

So it is not society that Dasein shares but society that shares Dasein. It shares it with all of the others, rather against its will. But this will is itself transmogrified into desire and hope, fear and resentment because society as the ‘generalizing institution’ par excellence, does not cleave itself in the direction of the neighborly. Instead, as we mentioned at the very beginning of our dialogue, it is fences and neighbors that correspond to one another and indeed bring each other into ontical being. Since part of the unthinking of the neighbor which accesses the ontology of humanity and not its epistemology – role sets and their appurtenances tell us ‘how we know what we know’ – is the absence of a need for meaning in the moment – it does not ask ‘why am I doing this or for what purpose?’ – it can only be the ‘socius’ that engages itself in the work of interpretation. In extreme forms, this engagement, necessary to every human being to a point, becomes nothing other than entanglement: “…we can actually speak of a ‘compulsion to extract the meaning’. Things don’t function any longer according to their own ‘objective’ meaning, but exclusively to express a ‘higher’ meaning, one pregnant with fate.” (Binswanger 1963:329). Minkowska adds that such persons “…become emotionally attached to objects, which leads to a love of order.” (cf. in Minkowski, op. cit:208-9ff). Bleuler’s ‘syntony’, also used adeptly and often by Minkowski, and Minkowski’s own ‘synchronism’ represent the delusional presence fostered by a ‘lack of attunement’ with objective reality (cf. Binswanger op. cit:338). Certainly modernity’s apparent lack of immediate and singular meaningfulness presents to us an existential and ethical challenge at once. But it must not be lost sight of that our own regressive remorse coupled with our eroded imaginations thinks that in prior epochs such meaningfulness was readily available. This is simply not the case, as meaning was just as much derived from institutions representing that ‘higher’ as it is today. Perhaps what is more truly at stake is our inability to imagine anything ‘higher’ that what we objectively see. Perhaps the problem is, put simply, objectivity itself.

As we will explore later, it is only a regressive nostalgia that sees in the past a truth that is no longer present. We are still what we are, Dasein and humanity more widely. Finite objective beings and individually, finitudinal being. Regression has its radically exemplary physical illness in epileptic-like events, and such an individual’s ‘saccharin personality’  – though we may wonder at such a framing – suggest the viscousness that gave rise to Minkowska’s idea of ‘glischroidy’, a conception that allows us to examine the ‘mystical’ character of the epileptic fit (cf. Minkowski op. cit:201ff). Shamanism had already explored this in a primordial manner, though ironically, as one of the first social roles. Epileptoid disturbances bear a similar family resemblance to those of schizoidism (ibid:204), but precisely in the manner that the neighbor bears some relationship to the socius. The first would not be distinguishable unless the second were ‘dominant’. The neighbor and the epileptic are spontaneous, the socius and the schizoid calculated. Within these last two, “…affectivity becomes fixed in an almost mechanical way on that to which it most closely corresponds: objects, groups, general ideas, etc.” (ibid:211, italics the text’s). Such phenomena, Minkowski notes, seem to operate ‘outside of themselves’ (ibid:212). And it is not only objects that come under the intense if obsessional scrutiny of the pathological role-oriented persona. The schizophrenic or the schizo-affective is also a socially constructed role, whereas the epileptoid in its encounter with the mystical – at least, according to previous modes of production and their cosmology – cannot be fully comprehended, let alone understood, by the wider ambit of mundane social relations. It is as if the role-geared persona of the they breaks down, its mechanism falters. This occurs no more than in those whose plurivocity of anxieties have utterly overtaken the Nothing and its resource of Anxiety proper: “With so many practical anxieties dogging him [ ] it is not strange that young research scientists dream unattainable dreams, live unrealistic lives, overwork desperately, and develop a monastic absorption which strains every human tie.” (Kubie 1960:265 [1957]). What is shared by both kinds of entanglement is the focus on the picayune and even the picaresque. One the one hand, we observe that much research, unless funded specifically toward a goal, usually and sadly a military or commodity goal, is so abstruse and arcane, or yet so mundane and even trivial that it carries the Dasein away into the margins of existence. It is curiosity cornered, focus fettered. No one is fully exempt from such charges of irrelevancy as scholarship demands a certain level of detail that other pursuits might eschew. But the tree tends to overtake the forest. With the ‘mystic’, on the other hand, we as well see this entrenchment which in turn “…reveals the basic features of all superstition: fixation upon the most inconspicuous, unimportant, and innocent details, and their elevation into the sphere of the decisive majesty of fate.” (Binswanger, op. cit:293).

Given that a significant portion of the North American population attends to at least some of this enshrinement of the picayune, it is no wonder that the archetypical detective of Conan-Doyle retains his immense popularity as a salient character in entertainment fictions; he is the ultimate master of taking the insignificant and making it utterly crucial to his investigations. But Sherlock Holmes stops short of sacralizing any of these details, indeed, of anything at all, and so he cuts the perfect figure, appealing to both our modern sensibility that nothing is in fact sacred as well as the older custom and sensibility that there is more going on than meets the mere eye. The scientist calculates this into her own inductive investigations – making bricks from the clay available – and the mystic simply knows when to look and what to look of ‘ahead of time, as it were. This latter tends toward deduction, however unscientific it may be in the end. Anything that elevates mere detail or coincidence into the profound may be said to be a regression: conspiracy theories, remaining superstitions enacted out of custom or habit, unwarranted suspicions, cynicism, even stoicism as a manner of keeping oneself aloof to others, and the like combine to give us the impression that modern life is more than it is. It isn’t.

To be sure, power corrupts still, but it does so in ways that anyone with or without power can understand. Behind the Masonic masks and Machiavellian masquerades lie simple intents and means. These both can be comprehended comprehensively under the rubric of maintaining control, authority, and the wielding of power to do so in any manner necessary to accomplish finite goals. Absolute values are part of the charade, and nothing more. The epileptoidal personality does not understand this simple relationship, and so we see these people scurrying into cliques, sects, even cults, who pretend to have the means to expose the truth of things if they do not already possess it themselves. This process is not, as many social scientists who study religion and social movements have claimed, a desperate ‘search for meaning’ or a meaningful existence. It is rather an escape from the meaning that already and always presents itself to Dasein. It is not a quest for vision but rather an effort at entanglement. It is a drive to replace indwelling with a theyness that is not as anonymous as is the everyday. It seeks to combine the old and the new – and thus is also an effort in nostalgia – given that such groups and societies, organizations and institutions function as if they were like the rest of us – the creationist drives a vehicle, for instance – while at the same time cradling an inner knowing that speaks of secret truths unavailable to the wider they. ‘Man’s escape from meaning’ might have been a worthy sibling to one of our most famous post-war essays.

It is of the greatest importance to recognize that most things are not important. We do this in our mundane lives, unreflectively, but as Heidegger notes, “Even when I do nothing and merely doze and so tarry in the world, I have this specific being of concerned being-in-the-world – it includes every lingering with and letting oneself be affected.” (1992:159 [1925]). Much of our day is taken up with things that only require a modicum of focus and intellect. This is not the problem. Our problem is rather the amount of time that such activities take to accomplish. Given that Dasein is historical being, and that we are, more basically, temporal creatures and organisms, this factor is decisive in any undertaking that seeks to make meaningful existence out of everyday life. Billy Joel encapsulates this tension in the lyric ‘I start a revolution but I don’t have time’. Most of us have been there in some nominal way. It may have been an aspiring vocation, a budding relationship, even an adulterous affair. New friends for adults are rare because of lack of time, child raising is a tenuous business because of the same. It is a stock phrase, used to ‘get out’ of anything at all: ‘I don’t have time’. It is almost universally accepted, almost as if the very invocation of time’s absence has an odd kind of sacredness to it. To lose time is to regress, so we think. We are being irresponsible in taking time ‘for ourselves’, as if we ourselves are somehow also absent when we do not take that time referred to. Dasein is always already present, in the world, just as is the world. They are co-authors of existence and anything taken away from either lessens their force while not vanquishing them. Nevertheless the trend is to avoid this elemental constitution of Dasein’s isness as much as we can. Speaking of Mounier’s work, Ricoeur notes that this “…‘type’ would rather express the exterior outline of a limitation, the failure of the personality rather than the idea of an internal plastic force: ‘We are typical only in the measure that we fail to be fully personal’.” (1965:152 [1955]). Such an exteriority is, as we have seen, both the home and the goal of regression, since it desires to move remorse into the social world, to make of it a role or an aspect of the socius rather than an irruptive injunction of the neighbor. The  mundane epileptoid seeks an insularity wherein she cannot be confronted by her conscience. In this, she is moved in the same direction as is the schizoidal person, but is, perhaps ironically, less calculating about it. The social epileptoid thereby is accepted with much more willingness into a sectarian environment, for instance, because she has demonstrated that her ‘condition’ is a sign of mystical movement in the affairs of men. Kristeva notes how such intentions fill up a space with contrivances and an ‘external presence’: “Its sensations fill Being with subjective information, whereas the impact of Being depersonalizes and derealizes  everything in its path, including the dizziness of sensations that for a brief moment we mistakenly believe are ‘ours’.” (1996:257 [1993]). Contrary to the view that suggests we are seeking meaning in our flight from meaningfulness, it is more correct to say that organizations specifically geared to create instant community function as ‘ours’ in this manner, whether or not they enjoin some other imagined realm, mystical, spiritual, or yet conspiratorial. At the end of the day, however, it matters little whether or not these contents be separated, for all groups of persons who claim to ‘know’ better are engaging in conspiracy themselves.

This shared solipsism sheds the social without doing the same to sociality. Any human group must still interact, but just here, populated by ‘misfits’ and even some rogues who desire to take advantage – the evangelical father who assaults his children in the name of ‘godly correction’ falls squarely into this category, for instance – there is a concerted effort to retreat from any wider meaning, as well as a great deal of energy put into taking umbrage when such a person is accosted from without. Binswanger links this reactionary and regressive subjectivity – which nonetheless seeks to hang its hat up on an archaic hook that in actual human history either never existed or was the province of a few antique villains who happened to be highly literate – to despair and even the thanatic drive: “A complete despair about the meaning of life has the same significance as man’s losing himself in pure subjectivity;, indeed, the one is the reverse side of the other, for the meaning of life is ever something trans-subjective, something universal, ‘objective’ and impersonal.” (op. cit:234). At the same time, the roots of existential psychology have it that we only find ourselves within the ambit of this wider meaning by ‘fleeing’ from ourselves and not ‘directly seeking’ ourselves out (cf. Heidegger 1962:174 [1927]). This is our ‘state-of-mind’, and thus must be linked to a disclosure and an encounter rather than a ‘discovery’ per se, as if Dasein was all about the hunt from the start. It is the relative ‘chanciness’ of how one finds oneself, as in a ‘mood’, that lends an abbreviated argument to the sense that fleeing isn’t such a bad thing after all.

But like anything else, all is well as long as there is moderation. The headlong flight from meaningfulness into perverse privacy is immoderate. In literature, this trope begins with Stendhal, wherein the hero’s identity  “…has withdrawn to an area not only different from, but hostile to public behavior. It is the area of interiority…” (Moretti 1987:85, italics the text’s). This figure represents internally the ‘social contradictions’ and non-linear histories that dominate modernity (cf. Adorno, op. cit:212). Yet one has to regress externally well before one puts up the curtains that block any observation of this new privacy. Ironically, it is mass man, the theyness of that exact public that turns away in this manner, flees from itself but not with a view to stand before itself once again. Moretti tells us that ‘equality in culture’ might destroy the old dogmatic authorities – and how many believed in these authorities in the way they demanded prior to the eighteenth century is perennially debatable, once again, due to the tiny amount of literates during these epochs – but it did not give rise to new elites (op. cit:102). Quite the contrary, as many an intellectual has since bemoaned, including a number of our key sources in this text. Even those who do arise may cheapen their instrumentation, blunt their critiques, by engaging in popularity contests: “Ideology rules by the mere fact of its having been brought into existence. In Rousseau, moral censorship is nationalized; the public censor becomes the chief ideologue.” (Koselleck 1988:166 [1959]). Certainly we see this today and not only due to the advent of mass digital media wherein one can be instantly ‘shamed’ or subject to other grotesque judgments. Such things appear more objective, and they are surly more external. Fittingly, if also ironically, they are one of the major variables in explicating the flight into the ‘interior’ by way of external regression. Sincere remorse seeks internal solace for the shame of it all, for not being able to face what one in fact desires to face: that very public and the wider world. We wish to return to our social place, for it is only from this jumping off point that our own ‘neighborliness’ can appear. The recluse cannot become the Samaritan, good or no.

In headlong flight, the longing to be ahead of others replaces Dasein’s innate being-ahead-of-itself. We enjoin a race to the bottom, as it were, shunning not merely our social role duties but more profoundly, the others by and through which we live at all. The disjuncture between living and existence allows for this, for though we no longer have a life to live, yet we remain. Dasein as the existing being does not vanish just because we will it to be so. Or do we? Perhaps it is rather thus: that we would prefer to live a life that enacts itself from itself alone. Perhaps we would prefer the absolute congruence between Dasein and personhood, something which contradicts the entirety of being-in-the-world for it loses all existential perspective on what I myself am facing and facing down; mine ownmost finitude and all that this implies.

And we think this desire to be wholly rational. Once again, it is immoderate, kindred with the notion to exhibit remorse instead of confronting it in an internality which is not merely an interior to itself. Externalized remorse, regretfulness, is not only a regression it is also a vanity. It seeks to value one’s self-pity as a meritorious endeavor, and perhaps also to commoditize it; witness the plethora of self-help books based on the autobiographical mishaps of this or that addict, sex worker, even murderer. One might include any partial or momentary homiletic also to be found in less excessive tracts of this genre, something this author has also imposed upon the reading public. ‘I was once this but now I am otherwise’; an archetypically Augustinian parabola that is nevertheless implied in Marcus Aurelius and perhaps even earlier texts. It represents a personalization of the Pauline doctrine of worldly transfiguration. The City of God can be read as merely the objective side of the transfigurational coin with the Confessions being that subjective. One also could be forgiven, to use a word advisedly, if one also wonders if the problem of subject/object also begins with these texts, or begins anew.

Immoderation, something that Augustine’s classical sources warn against, includes not only the externalization of properly internal dialogues – why indeed would anyone else care about my self-inflicted wounds, unless it would be taken for a trip to the circus? – but as well the vainglory of stating one’s case before an audience which is itself addicted to rationalization, simply because every member therein has also performed this sleight of in-handedness at one time or another: “Convulsively, deliberately, one ignores the fact that the excess of rationality, abut which the educated class especially complains and which it registers in concepts like mechanization, atomization, indeed even de-individualization, is a lack of rationality” (Adorno, op. cit:138). Surely it would be better if we kept ourselves to ourselves in this way instead? Not becoming a complete recluse, but never letting on that one’s own irrationality has taken such a monstrously public form that only that same anonymous and anonymized public can once again allow it access to the world. As if we were the benign version of the masterful criminal whom no one suspects is such, the truly rational person maintains his sociality whilst engaging in a self reflection that takes place in an internal dialogue.

This is what the interiority of Dasein is suited for. Such a comportment is benign insofar as it registers the needs of the wider body not wholly as its own, but as an important factor. We can be, according to the existentialist ethic, both public and private without taking the latter for an ontology. Indeed, if we do not engage thusly, we are “…left with a dreamy nobility, the memory of an unattainable presence, familiar thought forbidden, familial though lofty.” (Kristeva, op. cit:11). If the dream is an insight about our inner character and its lensed Anxiety, dreaminess is cheaper than the phantasm. It may even be serially orgiastic, amphetaminic, manic or depressive, it does not matter. Imagine being touched and only feeling the memory of touch previous. Such a delay would be tantamount to psychosis and would rapidly become unbearable so that one would prefer, in the end, not to have been touched at all: “…his dream of omnipotence comes true in the form of perfect impotence.”(Adorno, op. cit:57). Here, the utopia, always in the end utterly private and thus also a privation, forces the other into a thralldom of ‘fatefulness’. Noble in fantasy only, such a ‘dreaminess’ never awakens to the fact that other’s beings are never fully present, if at all present. Familial because most of our fantasies have indeed to do with family relations. There are few among us who have not wished for a ‘happier’ or more compassionate family, even if many of us do eventually overcome these deficits without entirely smothering them in lugubriously affective families of our own. But if our family of birth cannot attain the utopian desire and if we cannot force our current family to do so – once again, those who claim religion as their mantra attempt this petty imperialism more often than any other and have been perversely successful at willing it across the generations mainly due to the chance of repetition in the children the authoritarian personality engenders; that is, nothing to do with religion per se – we can at least retreat into the ‘personal life’ of the singular but also the highly alienated ‘me’. Our consciousness has been desacralized from the only thing modernity has to offer it; a position of banal ‘being as part of the world’. So we tell ourselves. But this too is, in the end, a mere rationalization of a hyper-rationality that suffuses into our souls. We have internalized mass politics along with everything else. The much vaunted ‘interiority’ of the romantic period bears a disconcerting resemblance to the external world after all, and was this not Stendhal’s point? At a time when the new capital was ‘in the saddle’, with the birth of the bourgeois class, with the citizenry, the professional military, and the public service of the kind of government we today would recognize as our direct forebear, what then of the equally new person, the individual?

Speaking of a sleight of what is supposedly already and always in-hand. Dasein manifestly does not exist for the sake of the state or yet its place in statehood. Dasein faces a state only inasmuch that my death is mine ownmost possibility. The state as the successor to the church, the two ‘evils of evil’, does not face death. We have seen in our own time not only the afterlife of god, but also, in a rather more pedestrian manner, that of the church. This has appeared to answer the call of the alienated individual. But one cannot truly know a ghost: “Thus for the secularized consciousness the political myth has become one answer to the problem of our epoch’s relationship to death – an answer arising from the distorted relation to the meaning of life of a consciousness at one and the same time deprived of faith but intensified in its sense of individuality by its position with the atomized mass.” (Plessner 1957:244 [1950]). Given the apparatus of technologized media and communication, the awareness of – but not the knowledge about – diverse others and their assumed desires, and the opportunism of those whose own inner alienation drives the quest for public power, the myth of modernity is in reality far more dangerous than any myth the church ever was able to put forward. In addition, the residue of the state’s predecessor lingers in some regions, used now as a rationalization to bond disparate persons together as if one could still hear the calling to a divinely sanctioned crusade. As Goodman puts it, “It is the great power of history to keep alive lost causes, and even to revivify them.” (1960:360 1956]). In a Weberian note, Ricoeur adds, “…it is no longer the institution which justifies violence, it is violence which engenders the institution by redistributing power among States and classes.” (op. cit:241). And those who seek to possess and thence wield this new power are deluded on both fronts, even as they delude the rest of us. Power cannot truly be possessed; one cannot keep it to oneself, as if the dynamic of politics were like the engine of a high performance automobile that one foreswears engaging at the green light. As well, one does not in reality wield power as if it were an actual sword. One makes decisions in the light of other variables. One can possess authority, but not power. One can wield force, but not power. The modern nation-state, which seeks above all to provide a benign-looking cover for the continuation of public inequity without involving itself in private iniquity – and without losing its grip on the mindset that it is the most advanced human political organization known; sophisticated, yes, but advanced? – advances itself as the total institution that can ameliorate the ‘iron cage’ of contemporary life. Retirement pensions respond to wage-slavery. Health care responds to critical illness, counseling to sorrow, welfare to suffering, and as far as the enduring problem of spontaneous joy goes, well, that’s to each her own.

Beyond all of this, however, is the sense that the state can confer upon each individual a singular statehood in citizenship without making everyone into exactly the same thing. Thus “…total institutions do not look for cultural victory. They effectively create and sustain a particular kind of tension between the home world and the institutional world and use this persistent tension as strategic leverage in the management of men.” (Goffman 1960:454 [1959]). The paternalistic state, of late made more casual and distant as the ‘nanny state’ – a further decoy as to its actual character; as if one could hire and fire it at will and the most egregious thing of which it is guilty is some form of backseat driving – seeks another kind of victory; that of Dasein’s insistence on its flight from itself. This is not about culture per se, but it does involve the kind of existence that has been known to create culture over against institutions like the church and state. In its striving to make persons into citizens, the state exposes its true needs. At its authentically most egregious, the state attempts to regress mature being into an undeveloped form of itself. In doing so it uses “…the logic of sadomasochism. It is the love of hate, the hatred of love, persecution, humiliation, and delectable sorrow. There is no specific social means for escaping this logic, for the whole of social life is contained within it.” (Kristeva 1996:157 [1993]). The Reich is held up to account as the recent archetype of this extremity, but is it not telling that in every victorious post-war state, the ‘management skills’ of the Reich were adopted to some degree? If it is correct to say that culture does not engender the neighbor, it is also just as correct to note that within the space of culture, acts, events, artifacts and objects do appear as signs of the neighbor’s continued existence, furtive perhaps, but insistent. The aesthetic object is well known to provide that same spontaneous and irruptive force that rends social life and its ‘means’ away from state management. Hence the need for censorship from time to time, speaks the state, even in the realm of art. These days, it is galleries and other venues themselves that practice a form of self-censorship, and no doubt certain kinds of writers do as well. All of this in ‘liberal’ democracies. Would it then be illiberal to suggest that along with the scandalously ignorant evaluation of each younger generation as the safe harbor for ‘anything goes’ – Cole Porter’s jest is lost to our overly and overtly sensitive hearing in our day – that our response is yet more scandalous? That we scurry to cover our thoughts over with the fashion for the absolutely inoffensive? Could it be that the absolute authority of the benign corrupts absolutely? “And if any sceptic of the kind who denies the truth, factically is, he does not even need to be refuted. In so far as he is, and has understood himself in this Being, he has obliterated Dasein in the desperation of suicide; and in doing so, he has also obliterated truth.” (Heidegger 1962:271 [1927], italics the text’s).

An excerpt from Blind Spots: the altered perceptions of Anxiety, Remorse and Nostalgia. forthcoming in 2019.

Becoming Attached to History (confronting youth with our own youthfulness, good and bad)

Becoming Attached to History

Science, along with rationalism, are the twin adulthoods of discourse. They are never free of their self-doubts, their experiential insecurities, but they must often appear to be thus free. Not only for and against youth, but all the more so against the aged. Indeed, in an ironic movement, adulthood adopts the old to protect itself against becoming aged. The era that invented youth also invented nostalgia. The two walk hand in hand, the first unaware of its effects on those older than itself, the second only too aware that it has not only objectified youth, often leeringly so, but sabotaged its own self-understanding. In other words, by desiring and aping youth, it has traded in maturity for adulthood. This may not be its intent, but it is its effect. Because the emotions are tender just at this point – loss, and the realization that in our experience of history, most especially one’s own, what is lost is lost for good – they are driven into action, called to action. For the most part, youth remain blithely ignorant of our prurient interest in them – the advent of the internet has only further insulated adults against potential obloquy in this regard – and when they become aware there is almost always some kind of blatantly criminal act occurring. Too late for both parties, as it were. Thus nostalgia, answering the call to action spurred on by a lack of experience – this is still different from the will to actually repeat something that has occurred in the past; we can and do fall in love again as adults, for example – shows itself to be in league with a kind of gentrified pedophilia. It is less barbaric than the euphemisms surrounding the physical assault of children, for instance, but it is nonetheless a veneer. Like science divorced from human intent, rationalism devoid of romance, adulthood without maturity – youthfulness is yet different from youth, as everyone knows even if they have forgotten how to speak it – nostalgia could be accurately defined as time without history: “The example brings to mind the remark of Claude Bernard that feeling always takes the initiative in thought. If so, it is a methodological error in the study of thought to disconnect it from feeling. It is an error characteristic of the obsessive mind which, by ignoring the affective sources of thought, renders its study an impossible task.” (Cohen 1960:548 [1954]). Our desire for youth, shrouded in the sense that we only desire ‘to be young again’ and not at anyone’s expense – yet what should we be doing if we were once again to find ourselves incarnate as a past self? – is as callow as was our own youth, now distanciated from us and not merely distant. No, the qualitative distinction of adulthood – a social fact quality rather than a phenomenological essence, of course – is what provokes anxiety. It is real absence, and not just distance. One’s lover is not merely away for work but is truly gone, that sort of thing. So distanciation is a quality that is a phenomenological marker, just as is intentionality. Like the latter, it only begins the work at hand. The Wesenschau, or intuition of essence, is an idealized result of intentionality and categorical intuition etc., but it cannot be attained unless one is willing to replace one’s being with something other, something that one cannot be for it already was: “Dasein can never be past, not because Dasein is non-transient, but because it essentially can never be present-at-hand. Rather if it is, it exists.” (Heidegger 1962:432 [1927], italics the text’s). Even death does not alter this existential circumstance. Objects, however, can represent what is past because that world itself no longer exists, it ‘had-been-there’, and in a manner quite different from how an ancient object’s presence illumines our own day (ibid). So Goethe’s formulation, his cry directed back into time and back into his narrator’s own biographical history, resonates not in the realm of objects but in that of the memorialization of memory:

Nothing I had, and yet profusion

The lust for truth, the pleasure in illusion

Give back the passions unabated,

That deepest joy, alive with pain,

Love’s power and the strength of hatred,

Give back my youth to me again.

Youth says: ‘no one loves as I do’, and this is true insofar as it also must say to itself that no one can hate as fully. But mature being knows that compassion is more authentic, if not more ardent, than mere passion, and that love and hate can become virtually interchangeable, as anyone who has lost love can duly if wryly attest. And the ‘nothing’ of which Goethe speaks is of course the very opposite of that which invokes in us the existential anxiety the onset of which is dread and angst combined. For youth, nothing really is to be taken literally; one has not yet done anything or become anyone. There are no accomplishments of note, and there has not been time to understand the world around one, stretching out ahead and beyond, giving one the best and to a certain extent, lasting, impression that in fact the existential horizon does not approach us. Even our current cosmology reflects quite poignantly our sense of horizontal shifting that occurs to living human beings sometime in middle-age. The expanding universe of youth, a moment where gravity overcomes mass and pulls back on it, and then the universe contracts once again into itself in preparation for the next big bang. The fact that there is some debate regarding this aspect of contemporary cosmology suggests that we now have an inkling about indefinite human life. And we, of course, do have just that. The combination of stem cells, artificial prosthesis, the so-called AI and even, more outlandishly, contact with the very extraterrestrials we presume, somewhat romantically, to have themselves overcome human tribulations, point in this direction. But all of this is, so to speak, nostalgia in reverse. Unlike Binswanger, whom Needleman suggests is not analyzing in merely an ontic manner because “…his analyses refer to that which makes possible the experience of the particular individual.” (1962:125), Adorno’s concern for the eroding of praxis caused by the feelings we bring to it not only are generalizable on the positive side, but may also be implicitly fatalistic. There is, in mourning the loss of a critical and radical praxis – of late turned to an extension of hexis, once again – a kind of latent nostalgia. ‘Give back to me my praxis again!’, one might cry. And perhaps this sensibility is also there in Goethe’s verse. After all, both love and hate can fuel the action of getting action and carry it forward.

Nostalgia is also, in this sense, a fatal error with regard not only to history – it ‘laicizes’ it in the worst way – but also to memory and yet more: “Our entire theology will, by an unconscious and fatal complicity, itself have had to prepare the laicization of which it is the victim. The meaning of history: no longer need a God be born in the flesh to reveal it.” (Corbin 1957:xviii [1951]). If the death of god no longer provokes a conscious anxiety – after all, the idea of judgement, perhaps first understood to be the key to the afterlife in Egyptian mythology, must have had some anxiety attached to it, though our record of this is, as need be, a record of those with the most to be anxious over – and rationally speaking, death itself cannot be by itself anxiety producing – one either dies or something of one carries on; either way what is to be anxious about? – we are left with the possibility of having to mourn or having to lose in the first place. What is to be lost? Why history, of course. And not merely history but, as Corbin stated, its meaning. And this meaning is new, in the light of the ‘deincarnation’ of deity, and more than this, ever new. Thus “For Heidegger, as for Nietzsche, the past supplies the ways in which we understand ourselves, and it is in the light of these ‘possibilities of being’ that we project the future. It is this necessary historicality that makes possible the thematic study of history.” (Wood 1989:154, italics the text’s). Note immediately that history needs now to be studied. This is precisely because it cannot now be ‘revealed’. Learning something through patient study is the very opposite of revelation, where the all in all is suddenly and radically laid open before us. Its very suddenness, to borrow from Kierkegaard, has an evil about it, mainly because we are suspicious of rapid change. The radicality of revealed meaning disavows the human need to make something meaningful. Either way, it is clear we are much more comfortable with the study of history as long as it does not get in the way of making our own history in our own time. Yes, to a point. For history is also a reminder of one’s own humanity seen over eons, and we would like to also believe in our freedom from precisely that: “Above all, they believe that America constitutes an exception in the course of human history and will always be exempt from the usual limitations and calamities that shape the destinies of other countries.” (Sontag 2007:115). Any state at its zenith willed itself to believe this, from Athens and Rome to Venice, France, Britain and the Third Reich. Any revolution proclaims this new destiny made ‘manifest’ much in the same way that a God used to be made incarnate. At this level alone the state replaces the church but avails itself of its narratives. Our entire auto-cosmology has this sensibility: history is a burden from which we must free ourselves. Psychotherapy says the same thing to us at the individual level that the new state – a newly elected government assuming power by means quite gentle compared to revolution will speak this language as well, though we are, for the most part, wise to it – and at its most base, even baser than politics itself, the shameless shill of the advertisers heralds the ‘revolutionary’ change brought into your household by this or that improved product. Such a sham cannot be imagined by any ethical being, and yet it is a daily occurrence. And yet perhaps this is not the most base after all. What of the parents and teachers who tell the failing young person that they must ‘clean up’ their lives? What of the ‘boot camps’ for teenagers whose parents simply do not wish to work with them or have semi-consciously admitted their incompetence for doing so? What of the abusers who, under the guise of a ministry now decayed beyond mortal recognition, decoy souls into their lurid embrace? A ‘new teenager by Friday’, one popular book assures its would-be audience. This very Friday? In the time of a blink of an eye, the thief in the night, and all of that. No, suffer the ‘little’ children might be a more apt expression for all of this utter nonsense and worse. Why expect such changes in such a short time? And why would one want this for one’s own children in any case? What is so bad, so evil about our charges that we, as presumably mature beings, imagine that they are destined for a place that also no longer exists? Speaking of projected anxieties.

All of this is so commonplace that a noble philosophy might wash its hands thereof. Even so we must also question, in leading ourselves to confront the structure of anxiety, how we could turn away from these iniquities and speak in an airy manner of ethics and nobility itself. Surely these projections are only the observable aspect of a larger whole. As Binswanger suggests, this is not a matter for either organism or instinct. There can be no ‘partial’ reaction from either or both, to such a ‘falling’ (cf. 1962:198). This ‘giving way’ – and Needleman notes that in English the metaphoric sky is reserved for those with phantasmagorical dreams while in German it is usually a place for those with hopes ‘deeply felt’, though the expression ‘cloud cuckoo land’ tempers this sensibility somewhat (ibid: 222) – is something that is experienced as reality: “The nature of the poetic similes lies in the deepest roots of our existence where the vital forms and contents of our mind are still bound together. When, in a bitter disappointment, ‘we fall from the clouds’, then we fall – we actually fall.” (ibid:223, italics the text’s). The ‘Fall of Man’ is but one sequence of this anxious longing, its cycle pronouncing upon us a judgement in kind. Not necessarily from ‘on high’, but precisely at the point at which we are now. The judgement may be stentorian, encouraging, gentle, heraldic, but it appears before us and thence within us at the moment of self-realization that says, ‘I am now here’. I may be where I wanted to be or not, where I thought I would be or not, but in any case, I must confront myself as I am and not as I would be. This is the more humane and existential meaning of psychotherapy, apart from its more dubious exhortation to transfigure oneself as if one were a God in the making. Depth analysis most specifically recognizes both the immediacy and the profundity of language to this regard, and “…that language of itself, in this simile, grasps hold of a particular element lying deep within man’s ontological structure – namely, the ability to be directed from above or below – and then designates this element as falling.” (ibid:224). So history’s meaning, shorn of any revelatory source but not necessarily bereft of revelatory qualities, becomes that of the day at hand first, and only after which a matter of record and objective discourse. Its own judgement arcs with the living. To be ‘effectively historically conscious’, to borrow from Gadamer, is to be aware of the relationship between one’s own existence, furtive yet fulsome, fretful but also flying – and yes, also falling – and thus is also to attain a certain distance from the sway and swell of the historical tide: “…a neutral sympathy becomes attached to history; engagement and the risk of being mistaken becomes associated with the search for truth.” (Ricoeur 1965:49 [1955], italics the text’s). Here, for the first time, ‘truth does not involve belief’. But just so, Ricoeur is quick to state that history may also be understood as an ‘evasion of the search for truth.’ Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the self-recognition, radical and also even absurd, that we must make our own truths without regard for either belief or yet believers, including ourselves. ‘Belief in oneself’, no doubt another slogan of decadent religiosity lurking under the sly guise of popular youth development tracts, is at best trite, at worst, some rationalization for narcissism. There is a suggestion of shunning others, of distrust, and in no way can such advice promote a healthy confrontation with anxiety. Yet it is also not the case that just because the thinker is charged with the search for truth, whatever it may consist of, does that mean that history’s meaning will be fulfilled if and only if all the rest of us similarly engage. This would be overstating the human case, at least to a certain degree. Rather, an analysis of the relation that holds between myth, the poetic, and the everyday use of language – simile, idiom, euphemism included – reveals even to the casual thinker something that might after all be cautiously understood as revelatory: “…as the power of the historical Dasein, which we ourselves are condemned or called to be.” (Heidegger 1992:131 [1925]).

from Blind Spots: the altered perceptions of anxiety, remorse and nostalgia forthcoming in 2019.

Who’s not J.R.? An essay in anti-morality


A recent story out of Fairfax VA notes the tragedy of a double murder and suicide. A young man with Neo-Nazi interests was barred from seeing his girlfriend. He was discovered in her bedroom in the early hours by her parents and he promptly murdered the both of them before turning the gun on himself. No motive could be ascertained, the story reported, and the parents were eulogized as simply attempting to save their daughter from a dangerous influence. Given that all those involved were of the same ‘race’ and both families had sent their respective children to an elite private school – which in itself smacks of a kind of lingering fascism – the young man’s politics could not have been the deciding factor and were perhaps used as a well-intended rationalization for keeping the pair of them apart. No, the two young people were in love and when such a love is denied things can become dangerous very rapidly. The story recounts that an ‘intervention’ was made and that the young woman had been convinced to stay away. This seems an open question given the subsequent visitation. And indeed, the young man manufactured an intervention of his own. Love of this youthful and incandescent variety works like this: if you cannot be with your beloved then all those who have stopped you from being so must be eliminated. Since in doing so you have also eliminated any further chance of reunion yourself, you also might as well die. For life without the beloved is simply not worth living a moment longer. This is the motive for the events in Fairfax and others besides, including the Canadian example discussed in the essay below. Yes, the logic is irrational in the extreme, and adults who are in love do not love as do those with nothing further to lose or those who have no perspective on what might be lost  (the elderly and youth among us respectively, are the only ones who actually love freely and unconditionally in this manner, more power to them, perhaps). In any case, the avoidance behavior associated with the contrived puzzlement regarding youthful love exposes the rest of us for what we have become: guarded, resentful, jealous, and controlling. We have become that not generally or originally through any calculated maleficence, but simply because we have loved and lost repeatedly, and the mystery of how that occurs and continues to occur is something as deep as it is abiding.

Read on if you are interested in a more detailed case and ethical argument concerning the nature of human love and its ambiguous character.

                                    Who’s not J.R.? An essay on anti-morality


Back in the 1980s, the popular television soap opera Dallas, a melodrama chronicling the life and times of a dynastic oil family, titillated its viewers with one of the most famous cliffhangers in media history. The principle had been gunned down by an unknown assailant, and for a time the world of popular culture was regaled by a simple query: ‘Who shot JR?’ No doubt the super-wealthy magnate had made many enemies in his checkered career, including members of his own family. At length, the issue was resolved in typical Hollywood fashion and we viewers got on with our very much more mundane lives and times.

On May 6th, 2016, our very own J.R. was released from all further obligations to Canada’s justice system, having after about ten years completed successfully her psychological rehabilitation. She was now able to get on with her life, and the community of Medicine Hat got some closure to a traumatic affair that had, at the time, shocked the nation and promoted, in a rather different way than a soap opera cliffhanger, a flurry of fashionable querying as to just what had occurred. Because what the RCMP walked in on back in 2006 was a grotesque horror of undeniably bestial proportion. Three people, one an eight year old child, had been brutally murdered. It was no ordinary affair on at least two counts: One, the murders were as far from being ‘professional’ as one could imagine. Their detritus spoke volumes about the hatred and fury that must have been present in the murderers’ minds at the time of the slayings. Two, one of the criminals was the victims’ own twelve year old daughter, that is, J.R. herself.

Now we’ve perhaps gotten all too used to the brutality of murder, not least because of how it is portrayed in our entertainment fictions. The more gruesome, the more credit for the heroes – from the famous detective on down to the technicians of CSI and everyone in between – who solve the case. But solving isn’t quite enough, after all. What we seek is not merely the solution to such cases, but also their resolution. This sensibility isn’t important for television because in order to keep the series or the plot rolling along we need to always be on the edge of our moral seats, anxious that the next time, just maybe, our heroes may not be able to solve the problem. It certainly keeps us watching. But in real life, we know things to be a little different. In our day to day world there are plenty of ordinary heroes and villains, and plenty of events that cannot seem to be resolved, from world peace on down to a family dispute. Even so, the fact remains that we also know that we should resolve these issues, even if we do not appear to have the means at our current disposal. Peak time viewing cannot bear a real tragedy for overlong.

So when J.R. was deemed worthy of the great socially sanctioned grace of human freedom, the media turned back for a moment to the original events, if only to reset the circle that was now, at least officially, resolved. The case itself was closed long ago, but this is not of interest to us. It is almost as if we can hear some version of Sherlock Holmes reminding us that ‘murder is common, morality rare’. Our fictional heroes are often great moralizers. After all, they defend society and its mores, legally and sometimes, to our delight, extra-legally. The anti-hero is often still a hero. Whether it was Holmes himself, pushing his loyal partner into breaking the law to catch the real law-breaker to the Dark Knight of comic book land, we remain entranced by the idea that sometimes you have to play dirty to get the dirt on things. What separates our heroes and villains is not really their means, but their motives. In spite of the moral caveat of which we are also very aware – that the ends cannot justify the means – nevertheless we celebrate those who transgress in the name of righteousness. This attitude surely descends from religious outlooks wherein the messianic voice was always a revolutionary one: ‘you have heard it said, but I say unto you…’. The key word, the radical term, is ‘but’.

It seems like a simple little word. Yet it is the harbinger of change. It announces itself by pronouncing in an entirely different manner a language we thought we knew well enough. Its speaker claims that we have been living in a dream-world, but he or she knows the truth of things and is going to, gracefully or no, bestow it upon us. Most attempted religions are a flop for just this reason. Not enough of us are convinced by the new meanings to get a viable social movement begun. Those that are successful, however radically announced, tone themselves down considerably – often after their founder has died; all the more so if they are executed or murdered – and begin to look very much like what the rest of us have been used to all along. In spite of this, there is some change. Over long periods of time, we find ourselves living in a different world.

But, sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we can’t bear to wait for change a moment longer. J.R. was one such person. Her parents had, no doubt amongst other things, forbidden her to continue to see her twenty-three year old boyfriend, a Mr. Steinke. We actually know his name because he was a legal adult at the time of the crime. Indeed, it is safe to assume that ‘J.R’. are not even the other person’s real initials, but no matter. Let’s examine this situation from the outside, using what we think we know about adolescent intimacies and also love of all kinds.  Wait a minute, you’re saying, what’s this about ‘other things’? The attending officer was interviewed briefly in 2016. He had clearly not been able to vanquish the original scene from his mind. I doubt many of us could. All of the evidence that the courts were interested in was present. But there was also a surfeit of more profound evidence of the type that is truly disturbing because it forces us to confront the character of both our personalities and our social conditioning. The murderers, in their violence, appeared to sink below the level of animals, for no animal kills in this way. Indeed, one of the dubious marks of our humanity is that we do not simply kill, but rather murder. The unethical rationalization that warfare transmutes murder back into mere killing is just that. Of course, neither the twelve year old nor her adult accomplice had any practice at murder. They were manifestly not assassins of any ‘level’, let alone of the type that provides yet more dubious entertainment in video games and films alike. The stabbing, slashing, cutting, gutting, impaling and garroting that greeted the gutsy RCMP officer produced a sight that was not for the faint of heart, to say the least. But the ferocity of the attacks tells us of their authentic motive. And that motive was as far removed from what one would first imagine as it could possibly be.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates famously defines love as a form of madness. Sent by Aphrodite, it afflicts mortals because, though we have imagined love from the vantage point of heaven, the metaphorical wings we grow when in love cannot help us actually ascend there. We are thus fated to love on earth even though our attention is arrested by a vision of the beyond. This is why lovers appear to be so disinterested in the world around them and others outside of their blessed dyad. Now in Plato’s day, such a definition was to be taken as ‘value-neutral’. That is, when in love, human beings were known to be capable of extreme emotions, thoughts and acts. They might be deemed great and worthy by the surrounding society, ourselves, who might not at all be in love at the same time, but might recognize it because we had been in love or in fact because we still were in love. But such acts of love could also be vile, vindictive, and violent. For to be in love is to desire only its continuation. Its ‘visionary’ quality allows one to pretend that the things of the mundane world are of little import. No sacrifice for the beloved is too high to accomplish, no need too desperate to give succor. Even as recently as the beginning of the nineteenth century, this antique notion of love and how it transformed human consciousness and rationality was still taken as a given, indeed, celebrated famously and infamously by the Romantic movement in the arts. But with the rise of psychopathological discourse over the course of the Victorian period, our definitions of both love and madness were altered.

The first became the lighted space of all that was good and pure about human character. To be in love was to be one’s best self, to raise both self and other out of the slough of bestiality and to become role-models for one’s fellows, marking not only the good life but also the good society. The second became the ever darkening space of non-being, a disturbed reliquary of all that was evil and irrational about us. Love and madness were thus separated, almost at birth. The problem of irrationality was partially solved along these lines, though one could argue that it was psychology which invented the problem in the first place. But what psychology neglected to resolve was the ongoing reality of the tension between two new forms of being human: society and the individual, both scions of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Yes, community, group, ethnicity, tribe, cult and sect, amongst others, hailed from much earlier times. People, figures, roles, positions, and even the self, likewise. But society in the sense we know it today, and the individual, the sacredness of which we in North America particularly prize, were new. Their advent was both the result of and the catalyst for the political and intellectual revolutions to which we owe our current state of being. You might say that we are, as a collective, in love with them, because we would simply not be ourselves without their presence in our consciousness.

We too suffer from a collective madness, even so. What truly mature species jealously guards and feeds the means of its own destruction? Our love is strong, no doubt, but it does not yet extend to those we feel nothing for. We have not at all reached that pitch of ethical maturity that the contemporary philosopher Paul Ricoeur reminded us characterizes authentic love, stating ‘the love we have for our own children does not absolve us from loving the children of the world’. Quite so. Our kind of love remains selfish and parochial, in other words, a little mad. And this at the best of times, for no child can be cajoled, manipulated, or coerced into murdering her own family if that family was itself not already the space of violence, danger, abuse, and hatred. We speak of discipline, obedience, ‘oppositional defiance disorder’, civility and maturity. We school our children to conform and to ask mere technical questions. We threaten them with our absence, neglect, emotional and even sometimes still, physical violence. In the name of love, we do these things to and ‘for’ our children.

Clearly, in spite of modern psycho-social discourses, the nature of human love still looks more like the thing Socrates was talking about long ago. One wonders if today, love itself being also a commodity, we use it to secure for ourselves status and security more than anything else. Children, with their incomplete socializations and their almost innate ability to be pests, are a constant threat to our fragile control over the petty kingdoms we hold ever so close to our breasts. What contemporary psychology does tell us that makes sense is that children do not tend to develop relationships of any kind with older persons who are not family members unless there is some pressing need being unmet in the family itself.

I can, barely, recall being twenty-three. I am grateful for my failing memory. Nietzsche was right, of course, about those unable to forget being existentially doomed. Aside from living in the past – is it a coincidence that so much of our entertainment is nostalgic in character? – the mourning of lost youth, the jealousy and even resentment we feel towards adolescents who can seemingly do and feel all that we seemingly cannot, contributes bodily to a sense that we, as adults, have at once to protect youth from itself, but as well, and more darkly, to keep youth from having too much fun, for having such is seen at our expense. After all, what would children be without us, we ask? They’d starve on the street. Canada would look like Bulgaria after the fall of state socialism, with untended orphanages, child prostitutes and sexual predators alike, gangs of Dickensian youths of all stripes and skills.

But aren’t team sports fun? What about science camps? How about music and theatre? These days, even homework, that time-honoured extension of the surveillance of the schools into the homes, should be ‘fun’. But we adults know better. Being in love is fun. And forget love, sex is real fun. Now you’re talking. But don’t tell the kiddies! At the time of the Enlightenment, twelve and twenty-three was a normal, socially sanctioned age match for marriage. The girl was always younger, but old enough to bear children in at least a short while. The man must be older, for he was the one who had to earn the family’s keep. Now no one wants to go back to the social formations that made this work for millennia. Most men as servants, women as chattel, children as property, animals as tools or worse and so on. But just here we can note something of import: the rights of children are not the same as those of adults even in our own day. We say that is because they are not expected to have the same obligations, and this seems sensible so far as it goes. Even so, we have extended our notion of what rights children do not, by definition, hold, into the realm of their consciousness and emotional experience. This isn’t a case of not being able drink or vote. This is, rather, a case where young persons must be not only allowed, but encouraged, to explore their nascent humanity with one another.

At twenty-three, I was not much more than a child. My emotional age was probably around sixteen, and this is quite typical of young males in our culture. No need to read the criminal news to divine that. In spite of being half-way through a Masters degree, in spite of having placed second for the Governor General’s Silver Medal and having received monies bestowed on only the top one percent of students, I was nevertheless fully capable of falling in love. Yes, with some other ‘teenager’. If an actual fifteen year old girl had come along I would have known I had met my match. Indeed, physically, as well as cognitively, such an age gap makes far more sense than what we actually do sanction, as females mature far faster than males in far more than just smarts. Our ancestors recognized this as well, though their goals were hardly about two young people exploring love together. So Steinke, if he was a typical guy, was more or less like me, like most guys. Not a lunatic. Not a child molester. Not a manipulator. He was about ‘sixteen’, and J.R. could well have been a few years older than her chronological age. Many twelve year old girls are. If we presume the two of them to be typical – there simply isn’t enough public information available to know for sure, and what there is has been seriously compromised by our desperate predilection for confining and limiting such relationships given their threatening quality; threatening, that is, to our bad conscience about how we not only raise our kids but also to what we ourselves have become in the meanwhile – they could easily have been in love to the extent that the madness of being in love was readily available to them. And one thing we all know about being in love is its absolute impatience with anything in its way. Love cannot wait. It will not wait. No sacrifice is too great, no act impossible. And such acts carry themselves well past any morality of the day. Love is an essentially anti-moral or even non-moral phenomena. Nietzsche famously proclaimed “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil’.

So all those who were interviewed in the ensuing weeks of 2016 who claimed they ‘could still not imagine how a child could do such a thing’, need to get a grip. And those who, with a little more public grace, suggested that J.R. had earned the right of a second chance, might consider spilling more of their apparent ellipses. Does this mean they knew something about this particular family? The idea of a second chance does not adhere as well to adults. Karla Homolka has become a Canadian archetype for this side of the coin. Yet surely she must have grown up wrong as well. Who could do such things and not have done so? And, in spite of ourselves, she did get her second chance after all was said and done, though we are skeptical of it and rather rightly so. And the idea, also rife in the interview material, that ‘children don’t really know what they’re doing’ is likely a calculated nonsense, martialed to decoy our suspicions away from the real problem: the family as we know it doesn’t work.

The question is not, ‘how could a child do such a thing?’ It is rather, ‘how come more children don’t do such things?’ It is the same question we can ask of other arenas which house our social inequities and inequalities. How come more women don’t murder men? How come more Blacks, or other subaltern ethnic groups, don’t murder Whites? Yes, I have heard the song from Jamaica, Mon. It was a man who murdered at the Polytechnic. Personal delusion was his ‘excuse’. But such murders in their very occurrence are already part of our wider social expectations of men. Women, and all the more so, children, do not figure on the debit sheets recording what we consider to be such incivility or worse. So we come up with the wildest rationales whenever they do make their rare appearance, including the manner in which such cases are handled. One person interviewed wondered if J.R. had somehow ‘tricked’ the rehabilitation program and justice system, and thus society at large. Oh, really? Oh wait, I forgot, she’s a demon-child, capable of super-human manipulation and trickery verging on sorcery. If anything, she’s been denuded of both her madness and her sense of being able to love. After all, ‘you can’t have one without the other’.

As a professional social scientist, my gut feeling was that I would want to actually meet J.R. and find out what really happened, at least, according to her perspective. But if our much-vaunted psycho-therapies were successful, I probably shouldn’t try: “Hey everybody, look, I just killed the philosopher and culture critic. He’s the true menace to society. I only killed my family but he wants to kill THE family. I only killed people but he kills morality itself. See, the therapy worked. I’m now so fully on your side that you can rely on me to defend society to the knife. This I vow. Surely killing the thinker more than makes up for what I did as a kid? The balance is restored and all of you have nothing to fear!”

She might be right. But a couple of last things remain of note. We know that our society could stand some improvement, and equally, we know killing people isn’t the answer. But where are the opportunities to question the authority of institutions, discourses, ideologies and social formations such as the family and gender relations that make the way things are seem as if they could only be this way? As if there were but one ‘human nature’. As if we were happily divorced from our own humanity.

J.R. was released, somehow fittingly, on Freud’s birthday. Proverbially, part of his theories concern the killing of one’s parents and their subsequent replacement with lovers. However allegorical, the idea is nonetheless in our heads. Steinke was in her life for a reason, Freudian or otherwise. Falling in love like that was a mark of both grace and desperation. Believing what they shared could be saved if only those who prohibited it were removed was a mark of adolescence at best, but what ended up being done was done out of love, nonetheless. Perhaps the one thing the rest of us can learn from this disaster is that the next time we find ourselves justifying something in love’s name, we’d better think twice about what love really is, and what it can do.


Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over two-dozen books on such diverse topics as ethics, education, art, religion and science.