On the Fear of ‘Death-in-itself’

On the Fear of ‘Death-in-itself’

            Though we remain mortal beings, and though we are, at some level, aware of this most of our lives, we do not tend to dwell upon this existential condition. Life is not only ‘for the living’, as the chestnut runs, it is also true, and by definition, that it is we the living who are charged with living it. Brooding upon its also definite limits, its mortal immortalities, is at the least a distraction from going about the business both at hand and, at least as existentially oriented, planning for a future, no matter how murky may be its details. This said, there is a thread of twentieth century thought that seems to have overtaken this at most pragmatic outlook we bring to the day to day and made it into more of an anti-philosophical credo. I do not think such a supercharging of ‘being practical’ is warranted. I do think that such an issue, however ephemeral or even ethereal it may at first appear to be, is important in that it takes away, or downplays, the authentic condition of human beings who, though we both face and face down a basic finitude, cannot know death ‘in itself’.

            Heidegger is well known as speaking of our basic thrownness as ‘being towards death’. The motion of this original existential arc can be understood as ‘running-along’, also towards death. Though this is the common lot, nevertheless we must at last actually face death alone. Our own personal death is what is at stake for Heidegger and his followers, and the deaths of others can only serve as some kind of analogical dress rehearsal for this. The place of the other is to witness for us our own deaths, as I have written elsewhere, and thus we reciprocate this duty, solemn and profound, when we find ourselves living on after this other departs from us.

            There seems to be nothing objectionable about this phenomenological view. On the one hand, it acknowledges a simple ‘fact of life’, and on the other, it seeks to interpret this facticality as a ‘facticity’, or an existential and historical experience of selfhood in the world. But how do we experience this facticity? What does it mean to run along towards something which in itself cannot be experienced? Isn’t Heidegger trying to have it both ways, or all ways, or, worse, is he trying to avoid having it any specific way at all; this last by making death so specifically my own that I cannot, once again, by definition, experience it in any meaningful manner while yet alive? Heidegger is also famous for stating that the ‘Nothing’ of this existential anxiety is emblematic of a facticality that rests beyond the usual sense experience of fact and world. Gadamer, for one, pushes this along by declaring that ‘we cannot experience our own deaths,’ once again and at first, seemingly a simple enough description that one would not think offensive in any way.

            Even so, given that the twentieth century – the ‘century of death’ as it has become known both historically, aesthetically, politically and existentially – has seen the closest to what we can imagine as the very bottom of the abyss of meaning and the end of everything – a kind of furtive and shadowy companion to our aspirations to observe the Big Bang, perhaps, the ‘creation’ or origin of everything – any writer who casts doubt on our ability to understand mortality might appear to be disdainful of, or at least, indifferent to, this other kind of facticity; the glaring factuality of we humans being quite capable of inflicting the experience of death upon another. Couple this with Heidegger’s brief stint as a Nazi party member for one, and his marginal notebook editorials venting his own personal bigotries against ‘the Jews’, for two, and one might be tempted to imagine that death in general was something with which this writer – still, the most important single thinker of that same century, warts and all – wasn’t all that concerned. I think this is a temptation that we should avoid.

            And it is easy enough to do so. Let us begin with the sense that in Heidegger’s ethical phenomenology death is the counterfoil to Care. This is a different sensibility than had his early period influences, if indeed they had one at all. Compare Mahler’s powerful dichotomy of death versus love, for instance, and though we are aware that it takes two to tango, we already danced that other dance back in Wagner. It is this earlier pairing that the real Nazis latched themselves onto, thanks much to Wagner’s own political writings. One can only imagine, aside from anything personal Wagner and Nietzsche may have had against one another – we can only recall they were both in love with the same woman who so happened to be Wagner’s wife – what I tend to think precipitated the ultimate break between them ran more along the lines of Nietzsche critiquing Wagner’s politics, rather than his art or even his love. For Wagner grasped, fairly early on, the retarding effects of strict ethnic identity on general human maturity. He notoriously declared to his many Jewish friends and musicians, that they were ‘perfect human beings’, and all they needed to do was ‘lose their Jewishness’. If this were meant only as a simple example, with no other implications, it is an idea with which Nietzsche, for one, would have certainly agreed. But Wagner made the conception of maturing beyond strict ethnic loyalties, perhaps originally stated with clarity in Vico in 1725, too specific in light of his own political tracts. On top of this, instead of following through on such an emancipatory doctrine, he instead with much of his own art fronted a mostly fraudulent Nordic mythos as the best future answer to the ‘ethnic question’. This is not of mere historical or even ethical interest, as we may be observing a similar sensibility coming of age in China, where to ‘be Chinese’ is considered superior and where other loyalties should be overcome by whatever means. Not that ‘Chineseness’, excuse the term, is any single ethnicity, of course, but since this culture, profound in its historical gravitas and willing to make great sacrifices to attain some kind of global standing worthy of its own history – this is something that we in the West tend to both misunderstand and underestimate – is most definitely on the make, leaving many others in its expanding wake, Wagner’s call to abandon archaic loyalties resonates.

            What does all of this have to do with our experience, or lack thereof, of death? What Heidegger is asking of us as individuals is not entirely different from what Vico – or Wagner, in his own clipped and thence disingenuous fashion – asked of us as persons. Gadamer is also well known for stating that one of the crucial elements of mature being is the recognition of one’s own mortality. This generally comes to us, in Western culture, around age twenty-five or so, perhaps earlier or later depending on one’s individuated experiences of life thus far. But this is, to borrow from Stendhal, just the ‘first crystallization’ of this evolving maturity. The second and more important aspect of self-existential recognition is not that ‘I can die’, the post-adolescent sensibility which lasts for perhaps a further quarter century, but rather that ‘I will die’. It is this second level of understanding that transforms what was mere knowledge into a knowing. And it is this knowing that represents to us an experience of what phenomenologists refer to as facticity. Just so, an example of facticality is the first realization that strict ethnic loyalties – putting your group ahead of all others and identifying your very personhood as a ‘kind’ – is a regression, a throwback, and a reactionary stance against the future orientation of both modernity and individuality as Dasein. But to establish this as a facticity is a different, more complex matter. Wagner, needless to say, cannot make this more profound step, though his art remains, as art, firmly ensconced within a realm transcendent to petty loyalties of any kind. Perhaps he as an artist remains the most ironic of the great aesthetic figures precisely because of this disconnect. One can as well certainly think of Bach’s religiosity, or for that matter, Brahms’s atheism, as somehow impediments to not only creative work of the highest order, but also challenges for us as listeners or what-have-you. But these other examples pale beside Wagner, if for only the dark events that later transpired long after his death.

            Similarly Heidegger, where what appear to be quite personal feelings might get in the way of fully understanding the works at hand. Nietzsche himself provided the necessary caveat, which should be generalized to any important thinker or writer, artist, composer et al. ‘I am one thing, my books are another’. This is no mere cop-out. In a much smaller fashion, I myself have difficulty imagining ‘someone like me’ having done all of the work I have done thus far. I ask myself, ‘how has this been possible, given the other?’ But just as we as readers and listeners, viewers and lovers need to remind ourselves that great work is not at all enthralled to great personhood – it has been said often enough that only Goethe as a life was worthy of his own great works – the creator themself must remind this very person that their work is only one aspect of existence, and that life is equally, if you will, ‘not for the working’.

            If we have so far suggested that there must be a separation between work and life in order for the rest of us to authentically understand the other’s work – after all, we have neither lived their life nor, all the more self-evidently, created their work – this should by now ring another bell for us. What we are born into is also separate from what we must become. This firstness of birth includes ethnicity, gender, lineage, nation, creed and worldview. Vico, though unable to predict with any detail what a species-wide conscious maturity might look like – it was left to Marx and Engels to provide the first response to this, a response that is still a challenge for many of us today to reimagine – was nevertheless correct in pointing out the road towards it. If the twentieth century was the century of death, it was also, perhaps in a more roundabout manner, the century of the individual. And it had, in its chronological infancy, the very best of exemplars as role models for this second characterization: Nietzsche, Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Camille Claudel and Lou Salome, Richard Strauss and Marie Curie, amongst many others. That today we have seen a halting yet growing return to larger forms of being which are backward-looking truly represents a regression in human maturity. The way in which we often view recent history, allowing ourselves to be tempted by that other siren, the idea that the great individual is foremost a transhistorical menace – ‘Hitler’s war’ and not a war of competing nations and ideologies, most grossly – travels concomitantly alongside the sense that we are somehow better off as part of a strictly sanctioned and bounded group, with all others as, at best, allies with similar goals. This constitutes the gravest threat to the human future we have yet devised, precisely because it combines the ancient bigotry of identifying ‘we’ as human and ‘they’ as other and possibly non-human with our hyper-modern technologies of self-destruction. This combination of ancient and modern was precisely the same dark alchemy that the Nazis effected in their military operations and their purges, their sense of both gender roles and public loyalties. Perhaps the two are related even more intimately, as tools and politics alike have always been developed in the face of the need to survive in an anonymous and sometimes dangerous world.

            Today, however, there is no such world. What I mean by this seemingly odd statement is that we have moved, fully and bodily, from a world of autochthonous Nature to a world of culture. ‘Nature’ in its very conception is now wholly cultural in both its import and its origins. We, as humans, have no ‘natural enemies’, to put it ethologically. That we have so far failed in the main to understand that our only enemy is ourselves and not some murky ‘otherness’ whose ethnicity or credo might differ from our own in some equally petty manner speaks to that same general regression in maturity to which we have above alluded. We highlight the Taliban as a danger or yet even castigate the Evangelical as at the very least a reactionary, but some of this is certainly a mere and transparent projection. As well, today there are ‘good’ ethnicities, such as those with Jewish background – horribly ironic and perhaps a façade for something else given how these particular humans who have very much ‘value-added’ to our shared and wider culture have been treated historically – and ‘bad’ ones, unnamed here. All of this makes one both suspect and a suspect; one becomes suspicious of oneself.

            Rightly so, given that both death and personhood have taken center stage at the same time and in the same place. Perhaps, if we are to credit all human acts as having their basis in a basic will to life, those who desire regression into enclave identities, whether based on sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or still, most glaringly and most evilly, wealth, are striving for mere survival in the twilight of knowing that to be a singular being is to accept death as personal. This is what I think lies at the heart of the matter: we are anxious to avoid the radical personalization of death. No compassionate being would disdain such an anxiety, and Heidegger himself often calls attention to it at least as a general state. It is the corresponding inner turmoil of what he refers to as ‘entanglement’. Its function, as it were, is to provide some insulation against the horror of Nothing, which for human consciousness, is unimaginable. This is reflected in art, for instance, at least since the Greek ceramic period where the ‘horror vacui’ was seen by art historians as driving creativity. Yet Eastern world-systems have had much less difficulty imagining this Nothing, and some aspects thereof actually strive to experience it both in life and as a kind of blissful afterlife. So once again what we are observing is an effect of insularity, of taking one’s own beliefs to be what must be for all. In this way, all of us, for shame and again, are evangelicals.

            Instead, Heidegger specifically, and ethical-ontological phenomenology more broadly, is asking us to consider taking up the authentic challenge of thrownness. Perhaps it is a little hyperbolic to envisage ourselves as ‘running along’ towards death, or even that our primary orientation in life is to be present as Care – Sorgeheit – in the face of death, but even so, it is also quite incorrect to give a cold disdainful shoulder to this sensibility, as, for instance, do both Schutz and Heller. Nor can this reaction be put down to the fact that many thinkers of Jewish backgrounds have been critical of Heidegger along these lines and others. Schutz, who died in 1959, was no ideologue and remains the greatest social phenomenologist in the history of thought. He was also a student of Heidegger, and the fact that Natanson reports that Schutz told him that he thought Heidegger’s analysis of death to be ‘perfectly phony’ should not imply anything other than a criticism directed at the possibility that phenomenology as a whole has overdone the ‘existential anxiety’, and this mainly thanks not so much to Heidegger but rather to Kierkegaard before him. This orientation, opposed to but also part of the very Care we bring to life and that we embody as Dasein, could also be impugned with an impracticality to the point of decoying one away from the matters of an equally authentic existence in the day to day, as does Agnes Heller charge. Though she reports that she came to Schutz only after completing her seminal work, Everyday Life, she states that her work is unequivocally ‘anti-Heideggerean’, and that only certain ‘twentieth century intellectuals’ worry about death as an existential or fundamental anxiety, which in turn, considering this supposedly disconnected source, casts aspersion on whether or not this should even be a concern for us. Yet Heller, herself a superior intellectual, could have no possible business courting the kind of anti-intellectualism her apparent stance would entail. So what, in reality, is at stake here?

            Just as the existential anxiety is lensed through mundane life, taking up an enormous variety of forms from addiction to reactionary and archaic group loyalty, so we should come to recognize more authentically the dynamic between the harsh sentence of mortality and equally firm demand that life is for the living. We are told, in Promethean fashion, that we cannot have one without the other. Aside from fire, Prometheus’s more profound gift to humanity was hiding from us the moment of our own deaths. In this ironic ignorance, all things thence became possible. If our Godhead is fleeting, if our freedom is limited, if our consciousness is historical, if our Dasein is care, then so too is our divinity keenly curious, our liberty loving, our imagination unbound, and our very being also a taking care. And if this last entails itself as caring for both ourselves and others, the everyday by way of life and the transcendental by way of art, then at once we are freed from both the suspicion of self-limiting apparatus and the very desire to limit ourselves by reactionary means. This is the deeper instruction that phenomenology bequeaths to us, and it is with this that I would recommend coming to terms, for it represences with the utmost gravity the fundamental maturity authentic human consciousness has in fact become. That this becoming, for the first time in history, entails of each of us the radical acceptance of our own personal death, should not be understood as also being that other death which would, in its current regression and its contemporary reaction, eclipse us all.

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

This Time the Government is Good for You

This Time the Government is Good for You

            Relax, I’m a doctor. Of philosophy, that is. I hold a world top-40 Ph.D. in the human sciences and partly because of this people often ask me to ‘explain’ what is going on right now. I can’t cure the virus, so my skills are not front and center. But step aside with me for a moment, and I’ll attempt to tell you why I think that this time, the government is the right pill for the right job.

            Needless to say, as a thinker I am no great fan of the state. Our official apical ancestor, Socrates, was executed by the state for ‘corrupting youth’, which remains a large part of my mission. Kant was ordered by his state to stop writing about religion, a particularly delicate theme in his time even more than in our own. He ignored the order and no doubt said something that wasn’t fit to print in return. So that’s pretty much where I come from in the day to day, when times are mundane and life seems long.

            But for the moment, our times are neither. I recently published a new theory of anxiety and so one thing I can tell you right off is that Anxiety, capital ‘A’, is seen by philosophers as a good thing. It’s like an early warning system, an impetus to care, which Heidegger stated was the most fundamental aspect of our beings. This ‘concernfulness’, as he put it, orients ourselves to the most pressing of issues which underlie the day to day of living on. These include the condition of others to self, the future as ‘being-ahead-of-ourselves’, and our thrown and fallen state as beings who exist in the envelope of both ‘finitude’ – existential finiteness that cannot be located at a precise time, just as we cannot know the hour of our individual deaths – and ‘running on’ – moving towards our future deaths but in no conscious or systematic manner. Large-scale crises are certainly something to work against and around, but they also serve to distract and decoy us away from confronting the intimacy of our own deaths, which cannot be shared with any other human being.

            So ironically, part of our anxieties regarding COVID-19 concerns how well this crisis will distract us from ourselves, our own lives as we have lived them, and whatever regrets we may have suppressed about them. Anxiety, on the other hand, alerts us to these more intimate aspects of selfhood and does not let us be distracted by the world in any inauthentic manner. Generally, the state is part of this decoy world, issuing this or that decree that appears abstracted from our daily life, even arbitrary. The State is one of theological philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s two examples of the ‘evil of evil’ (the other being the Church). The evil of evil is defined as ‘fraudulency in the work of totalization’. What does this mean?

            Traditionally, only a God was omniscient and omnipresent. As secular political life elbowed spiritual life into the margins, indeed, sometimes into the shadows, the state replaced the church as the center of social power. Even so, as a human institution, government is flawed, not at all all-knowing, and not quite everywhere at once. It often pretends that it is both, and in this it is a fraud. Many modern institutions partake in this ‘fraudulence’ as they pretend to be everything for everyone. The university is another obvious example. But with the stern demands the state is placing upon us these days it is flexing its absolute power over civil society, in part, again perhaps ironically, to keep it thus. We are reminded of Lord Acton’s now almost cliché epigram, originally in epistolary form, that ‘power corrupts’, and further ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. So we might be adding this worry to our list of anxieties and generally and in principle, we should always be concerned about limiting the power of the state, lest more governments arise around the globe that lengthen the list of authoritarian regimes.

            But this time I’m going to tell you that our governments, at least, are doing the right thing. Listening to real doctors, for instance, and following their advice to the letter. In turn, we as civil and unselfish citizens need to do the same. This does not mean that we shed our individuality for automata, slough off our would-be immortal coils of freedom for slavery and obedience, or regress to the status of young children. It is a choice we make based on the best of knowledge at the time, and one that the vast majority of us, myself certainly included, could not make for ourselves. We do not become thoughtless morons by acceding to this general will. Indeed, it is thinking that has brought us to this point and it is thinking that will see us through to its far end, however indefinite this may appear to be today. At both federal and provincial levels then, we should heed to the letter the demands of the day. So relax, take two governments, and call me in the morning.

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

The Larger Lure

            The Larger Lure: on the decoy effect of latter day ‘child-saving movements’

            There is such a surfeit of public service articles regarding the dangers young persons face in the world that it behooves the reflective person to take a step back for a moment and examine, not so much their claims, but the manner in which they are presented. A typical piece, in slide lecture format, begins here:

https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/missingchildren/ten-most-common-lures-used-by-child-abductors/ss-AAxvXYk?ocid=spartandhp

            Like any Decalogue, the practical advice on how to educate one’s child to become more savvy to strange adults – and this in a world where over 95% of violence against children is perpetrated by intimates; those who children know and trust implicitly – contains a kind of Mosaic dictum: ‘Do this and avoid that’. As well, this list of ruses apparent child absconders use would at first seem to fool no one but very young children, though I may be naïve. We are also told that the lures differ according to age and gender, yet we are never quite told what the purpose of such behavior is. There is an elliptical character to all such pieces, as if the very thought of child molestation should remain unsaid, even unthought. No doubt there are varieties of villains ‘out there’, some of whom would merely profit from children displaying themselves in some lurid context without themselves affording any personal pleasure to the prurient marketeer, for instance, but no matter. The key to this kind of piece is that it hides its propaganda beneath its public service, not unlike the State itself.

            In other kinds of media, more reportage-oriented journalism tells us of the trials faced by those who track and prosecute child abusers. These are noble officers of the law who are nevertheless aware of the temptations such cases present. At one time, hanging above the Toronto office for the investigation of pedophiles hung a small placard with the incompletely quoted epigram ‘Those who fight with monsters must take care not to become a monster’. Nietzsche immediately adds ‘And those who stare into the abyss will find that the abyss also stares into them.’ In other words, one cannot entirely remain aloof to the darkness if one elects to tread its succubic sanctuary. Misquoting philosophers is a commonplace event – and one that in a perverse manner I sometimes envy; at least it shows you that you’re famous! – but it too hides something of interest. In this specific case, the officer, embarking on what is in fact a dangerous mission, is only told to beware of becoming like the person he or she is after, but not that in fact he or she will become at least a little like them after all is said and done. The amount of stress leave granted to these special unit officers is testament to this other truth.

            And ‘mission’ is a term one can use advisedly for such a caseload. It represents the most official guise of the latter day child-saving movement which has once again appeared on our domestic landscape. One must question ‘why so?’ at this juncture, but I will put that off for just a moment. Another word must be confronted first, and that is ‘monsters’. Nietzsche is usually understood as speaking about the urges that lie within ourselves, and not some other actual physical person, but presumably the Toronto police force must indeed confront both kinds on a regular basis. At the same time we are told, and by the same agency, that people who lure children are ‘like us’; fellow police officers, teachers, members of the military, coaches, parents et al. Given that all of us must work to live, is the resemblance to the rest of us built only along those lines or is there something more profound, and more uncomfortable, once again beneath the surface, lurking like the aviator-glasses-wearing-child-molester-van-driving-older-overweight-male, cliché ridden as he is?

            I would argue yes, there is more to ‘like’ than meets the eye. Indeed, I would suggest that these persons are not so much like us but rather are us. They have exceeded their capacity to restrain their local desires – opportunism of all kinds breeds contempt; for norms, laws, one’s own conscience, philosophical ethics and so on – in this one specific arena. The case of the pediatrician in Alberta is an example of someone who, otherwise greatly respected in society both professional and community, nevertheless sought to fulfill his desires at others’ expense.

            Note now that we come face to face with the larger lure on the adult end of things – more about that facing children in a moment. We are on a mission to avoid confronting the facts of our geo-political world. Though it may be reasonable to suggest that each adult has, globally speaking, a local duty to protect their own children, should it be the case that we are only so responsible? The internecine dangers – in the case of pedophiles and the usual like suspects, mostly fictitious; their presence in media coverage far outweighs their actual presence in our community – our own society presents us with has the effect of turning us inward, as does most media. Sports and entertainment coverage construct a fantasy environment, we follow only the politics of our own nations and that sporadically, and ‘personal’ stories of self-help or heroism are of interest insofar as they prevaricate the new mythology that our culture celebrates the dark horse, the underdog, the one who suffers. Celebrates perhaps, but only to a point supports. This trope is borrowed directly from Western religion but today is used on the surface mainly to sell commodities and more deeply, in its own monstrous abyss, to sell our society itself.

            And this is now the moment when we come face to face with the larger lure that decoys our children away from both reality and human freedom. We are told that those who lure children have one paramount thing in common: they are ‘master manipulators’. Surely not. Given the ten ‘most common lures piece’ above, any doorknob would have thought of these, and they are transparently ridiculous besides. Surely the true masters of manipulation are those who work in advertising firms, the spin-doctors contracted to political regimes, the people who write curricula for our schools, and the parents who lie, day in and day out, to their children about where the real risk is. Statistically at least, it is overwhelmingly in the home and as such, pieces about child predators and those who fight with them have the deeper purpose of allaying suspicion regarding what is going on behind those suburban doors, gaily painted on the outer frames, perhaps often casting a darker hue once one has had the misfortune of stepping over their thresholds.

            But we must return to the question breaking in earlier, the ‘why’ regarding the presence of more of these decoy articles appearing now than in previous decades. What is their wider meaning, and what are their wider effects? The ‘moral panic’ serves the advertiser and retailer well. Shilling risk allows one to shill security in that consuming – and less so, but also present, producing – goods feels more like a sure thing. Not merely products that make households ‘safer’ – the software that disallows young internet acolytes access to ‘mature’ content (now there’s a misused term if ever there was one) and contrasting, perhaps, with the fact that there are plenty of everyday objects sold that could be used to beat one’s kids (and indeed  are so used in countries like the USA where the laws regarding assault against children are soft) – but also the idea of contract itself is shilled. There are terms and conditions to all social dynamics, and it is precisely the lack thereof within the underside of sociality that is most radical to us. The villain eschews any contractual language once you are in his or her thrall. While any upstanding citizen decries this moment, when will we begin to apply the same standards to our own behaviors, behaviors which result in the world being precisely as it is today? In my latest non-fiction work, due out this summer, I write:

            “The general bad conscience of living in wealth and freedom when most do not has this effect as well. It might lead to a critical anxiety if it were not covered over and distracted, entangled by all of the web of consumer society which in part gives us the appearance of both wealth and freedom alike. It is a hard slogan – ‘third world blood fuels your lifestyle’ or the like – but it is yet not an entirely accurate one. It is, in effect, not hard enough, for what that blood actually fuels is our notion of freedom and even relative health. But one cannot, by definition, attain freedom based on unfreedom. One cannot be free on the back of the one who is unfree. Every historical human ethics acknowledges this moral fact. Therefore we allay our anxieties with the appearance of freedom, which would have to include such characteristics as some social mobility and physical movement, consumer choice without regard for either season or more glaringly, climate, and even serial monogamy or its guises. What we other aristocrats actually possess is not human freedom but the velvet unfreedom and supple unthought of those who are idle in the face of collective responsibility and thus ill-suited to explain to the rest of ‘them’ why and how this is going to continue to work as it does.”

            The parent who loses their child to disease or yet hunger in some marginal place might well call me a child predator. A most powerful one who can kill at a distance and remain unseen and untouched. Is the collective revenge of the developing world coming down the pipes as we speak? We might just be at the cusp of adding to our list of anxieties and even neuroses – a list whose numbered items far exceed any latter day Decalogue – the nascent realization that the villains are, after all, simply and slyly, ourselves.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books on ethics, education, art, health and religion, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.

Learning how to be Properly Anxious

Learning How to be Properly Anxious

Anxiety proper is part of our core being, just as is care, resoluteness, and the ‘being-ahead’ which orients us to the future and our own singular finitude. It must be separated from anxieties, plural, which have to do with the concerns of the day. It is an alert mechanism, can initiate the call of conscience, and mediates between the unconscious surreal language of dreams and the like and our conscious self-understanding. It is the personal ‘effectiveness’ of historical consciousness insofar as it can be relied upon to make us more aware of our present situation.

Just as an existential analysis prefers the present in understanding the state of being, the consciousness of ‘Dasein’ – being-there or being-in-the-world –  and its possible entanglements, so does any phenomenology of the altered perceptions anxieties, remorsefulness, and nostalgia brings about within Dasein. But what is the present, after all? It cannot be summed explicitly, for any attempt to do so, somewhat proverbially, takes us into the realm of reflection upon something that has already occurred. Danto suggests that we live in a ‘posthistorical’ period because we no longer possess a ‘narrative of the present’ (cf. 1993:138), but I think also in part this sensibility subsists because of a sensitivity we maintain regarding the ‘just before’ or the beforehand. Such a sensitivity is also ironically present and maintains its presence in part because of the prevalence of both anxieties and nostalgias in our social world. Not enough remorse, to be sure, but otherwise a fair display of remorsefulness, for the benefit of others and the looking-glass selfhood. If anxieties are distractions, they at least have the merit of drawing our attention to an ad hoc concernfulness which might lead to the more authentic variety. But nostalgia is just plain ugly. Even so, just as there may be no beauty to be discovered either by science or philosophy, (cf. Heidegger 1992:152 [1925]), we cannot simply rest with such a casual judgment upon what appears as its opposite. And if the social world is often ugly, the world itself is not. Nor is it, as the supposedly heroic thinker or scientist  might imagine, ‘apathetic’ (cf. Binswanger 1963:171). Though Lucas speaks here of the lost moments of ‘personalist idealism’, including most famously that of Lotze, it is in principle better to have one’s thought ‘examined and refuted’ rather than simply fading away to be mentioned only in arcane and advanced histories of one’s respective vocation (cf. 1993:112). This kind of apathy we can ill afford. Better to restate and defend the idea that “…all modes of human existence and experience believe they are apprehending, something of the reality of being, in the sense of truth, and do so, indeed, in accordance with their own proper ‘forms of reason’, which are not replaceable by or translatable into other forms.” (Binswanger, loc. cit:173, italics the text’s). Binswanger is lauded by Fromm-Reichmann, who states that the former applauds the ‘constructive aspect of anxiety’, and the ‘tension aroused’ in a person who is determined therefore and thereby to ‘face the task set by the universe’, the universal task and the ‘action’ that is called forth by it (1960:139 [1955]). This is itself resoluteness guided by care. It is not only authentic to the Dasein it is how Dasein must needs ‘apprehend’ the world. One must beware the ‘temporalization of counterconcepts’ so that one does not ‘abolish’ otherness (cf. Koselleck 1985:165 [1969]), and phenomenology is not immune to such ‘temporal loading’ in its exploration of the reciprocity of perspectives. It may also be the case that entropy itself, seemingly non-reciprocating and ‘one-way’ is neither isolated or of course, ‘perpetual’ (cf. Horwich 1988:65). Nostalgia attempts to arrest entropy inasmuch as it desires to do the same for history. Remorse does so in a more ’subjective’ manner, whilst everyday anxiety disregards the temporality of the act and thus hamstrings our own ability to both react and to take the kind of action resolute being must engage in.

But all of this is given the lie by an examination of our shared condition and the experience thereof and therein. Part of our existence is ‘strange’, is even strangeness itself, since we are the sole creature known to have lost our ‘nature’, in both the sense that we are no longer apart of the wider natural realm as well as seemingly having departed from any sense that we can come home to ourselves in a manner bereft of culture or cultures. As Puech suggests, the presence of this sense of Ungeheuer tells us that we have not always been what we are at present (cf. 1957:73 [1951]). But what is revealed by this disconnect is our ability to ‘have conscience’, to ‘choose the presupposition of being of itself’, or more simply, ‘choose itself’ (cf. Heidegger, loc. cit:319). Running along towards death, this ‘forerunning’ is in fact “…the choice of willing to have conscience.” (ibid). This is a momentous discovery. Not only does it allow human reason to engage in itself, it contravenes and stands against all forms of entanglement and regression. Its ‘care’ does not stand for it, and thus it becomes resolute. It may not be “…the final trace of the ontological proof of God…” (Adorno, op. cit:133), but it most certainly is the core of being human as well as the ethical essence of becoming humane. The call of conscience is a reveille that enacts Anxiety proper. We do not at once care, but we can do so given the Aufklärung that is at once an enlightenment. Just as all great art begins in scandal, so “The law of scandal answers the law of the ‘false consciousness’.” (Ricoeur, op. cit:281). The scandal of art, of thought, even its evil, according to convention at least, must be present as a manifestation of Anxiety proper and as a bulwark, chiding, mocking, satiring, but most of all, critiquing, anything that would backslide into a regressed state; nostalgia, remorsefulness or regretfulness, and the decoy of anxieties. It too does not rest with a pedigree that culminates in an origin myth. Archaeology exposes what is left of the truth of things, both psychoanalytically if taken within the fullest light of the recent, as well as more literally; the history of humanity as buried but still grounded nonetheless. These spaces, subterranean and occlusive, are indeed what contemporary art, in all of its scandal, represents: “If modern art is characterized by the disintegration of external reality and an activation of the transpersonal psychic world, it becomes understandable that the artist should feel a compulsion to depict the powers in their own realm…” (Neumann 1957:31 [1950]). This is a kind of externalized ‘disposition’, a finding of Dasein in its own being and in its ‘own there’ (cf. Heidegger, loc. cit:255). The psychic realm is often unobservable in any direct fashion. Aside from jokes and linguistic ‘slips’, dreams known only to the sleeper, and other faux pas, art is the most potent expression of a shared subjectivity which has overcome the bonds of an also shared subjection. In literature, the new mythos evolves in a similar manner: “Once the hero is no longer an innocent child, but a young adult fighting for values not yet socially accepted, the plot can finally dispense of its fairy-tale-judicial framework.” (Moretti 1987:215). Such values can of course ‘become nonsense and even outrage’, “…but it also forces us to seek a new meaning, to revive our scale of values.” (Dardel 1960:587 [1958]). This is, by definition, the necessary counterpunch to any form of regression: “…that the experience of loss of self and loss of the sense of subject-object relations is a loss of a certain kind of anxiety generated self-consciousness; it is a creative rather than a regressive movement.” (Fingarette 1960:576 [1958]). This is obviously more than the acceptance and even slight fatalism suggested by Shaw’s famous quip regarding ‘making the family skeletons dance’ (cf. Erikson, op. cit:41). In fact “It is not an anxious interrogation on our discouraging historicity, on our way of living and sliding along in time, but rather a reply to this ‘historical’ condition – a reply through the choice of history…” (Ricoeur, op. cit:25).

The outcome of this ‘choice’ is crucial, for we can choose an end due to the wrong means, or one can reverse the two of them, or yet engage in tasks that make them seem co-extant or even identical. Unethical means are said to ethically affect the end, as well as perhaps more logistically, effect it. But unethical ends that look like means are surely the more dangerous: “One wants to break free of the past: rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.” (Adorno 1998:89 [1963]). So the hero, the being who is still young but may be socially considered an adult even so, must not only root out what is hidden in her inherited world, but must hide herself within that world as if it were both cloak and cape at once. The ‘when and how’ of means and ends within this quest may not even be visionary or epic, allegorical or mythic, or all of these at once. They may exact their truth of both departure and terminus in the smallest moments of self-realization, of a Dasein which cares with each step of its being. There will always be resistance, but most heroic quests do not involve the ‘Worldcraft’ of a total transfiguration. And if it is in the very ‘nature of crises’ to go unresolved, at least for an indeterminate amount of time, what cannot be predicted as a future outcome knows still that such a crisis will itself end, one way or another. (cf. Koselleck 1988:127 [1959]). And we also know that “In the form of memory and hope, for example, past and future consist in the fact that something other than natural change takes place in the now, namely, reflection.” (Lampert 2012:87). And finally, as Wood reminds us, though judgments may emanate out of both recollection and retrospection, the ‘horizon they celebrate is that of the future’ (1989:89). We have in fact overcome something, mostly ourselves, no doubt, but also a piece of the world of action and the world that has engaged us to ourselves engage in inertia-defying action. Our heroine may make a fool of herself during her quest, and this is indeed inevitable, but its necessity rests as well upon the perception of the others to whom she must communicate the new tables of value: “The spontaneous, unreflecting attitude of the young fool enables him to maintain himself in the heart (center) of time.” (Wilhelm 1957:222 [1950]). Certainly, one must ‘accept one’s life’ in order to exercise a ‘genuine freedom in the present’ (cf. Shabad, op. cit:124), but equally so, the ‘anxiety about remaining normal’ must be overcome, overleapt, even transcended (cf. Canguilhem, op. cit:286). Indeed, “The menace of disease is one of the components of health.” (ibid:287). For a society, the menace of insurrection, subversion, scandal and yes, even evil, are necessary features that youth, especially, bring to the historicity and facticity alike of both being and world. The ‘sociality’ of this mediative limen, that which must be crossed – in the sense of ‘no crossing at this point’ versus the heroine’s ‘don’t tread on me’ – is a fulfillment on the order of the momentous forerunning.

Dasein, before its own completion, has itself completed the death of an aspect of its world (cf. Heidegger 1962:288 [1927]). It is specifically through such heroic deeds that the Dasein becomes ‘ripe before its death’ (ibid). It is ontologically the case that ‘No one can take the Other’s dying from him’ (ibid:284). Why would we care to? The hero ‘dies’ before ‘his time’ in this way. He has taken his own death and run into it well before the horizon of the future has made its final approach. This is, subjectively, a scandal, but objectively, so to speak, an evil. It is the ‘art of dying’, the celebration of life at its most ripe. This fruit is sweet beyond words, and no aftertaste lingers to sully its sweetness. Since Dasein’s only ‘experience with death’ is as a ‘Being with Others’, (cf. ibid:281), this is ‘objectively’ the case for Dasein as well. But this is still not an experience of one’s ownmost death and can never be. To experience this one must become the hero first, to live as Anxiety and as the apprehending, while maintaining a disentangled being, for of course, the whole impetus to scandalous revolution and thence transfiguration is the realization that one is a prisoner, a slave, a servant, a maiden. It is a human realization because slavery is a human institution, a way of organizing our relationships and no one else’s. Just so, the ‘false consciousness’ that pervades species slavery is answered by ‘the law’ of a scandal that appears evil. But in fact it is beyond both good and evil at once, for it has acted consciously, perhaps for the first time: “Truth does not emanate from ‘the nature of things’; it requires a decree of the mind, a decision about life that runs a risk in order to partake of the truth.” (Dardel, op. cit:591). This risking is not only apparent in hermeneutically inclined dialogue, but in every ‘having of’ a new experience in an equally hermeneutic sense. The newness of this experience is a microcosm of revolution, just as every thought enacted and reflected outside the boundedness of the conventional and the slavish sensitivity to change is also radical to what has been. Anxiety proper overtakes anxieties plural, and the remorse momentarily present at the loss of the old life is itself overcome by resoluteness. There is no turning back, but there is also no need to do so. It is the very essence of the human adventure to leave all things behind it and to engage in all things that come to it, no matter their character. Only through this does the human character itself emerge and make the history which is its own. Here, the last word belongs appropriately to Kierkegaard (op. cit:255) himself: “I will say this is an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing to anxiety. Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books in ethics, education, social philosophy and social psychology, religion and aesthetics.