Who was that Unmasked Man?

Who was that Unmasked Man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.