Abortion and Ressentiment

Abortion and Ressentiment

            “The phenomenal peculiarity of the ressentiment delusion can be described as follows: the positive values are still felt as such, but they are overcast by the false values and can shine through only dimly. The ressentiment experience is always characterized by this ‘transparent’ presence of the true and objective values behind the illusory ones – by that obscure awareness one lives in a sham world which one is unable to penetrate.” (Max Scheler, Ressentiment, 1912-13, [2003:36], italics the text’s).

            In his perceptive introduction to Scheler’s classic extrapolatory work on Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, or ‘malicious existential envy’, Manfred Frings defines it thusly: “Ressentiment is an incurable, persistent feeling of hating and despising which occurs in certain individuals and groups. It takes its roots in equally incurable impotencies or weaknesses that these subjects constantly suffer from. These impotencies generate either individual or collective but always negative attitudes. They can permeate a whole culture, era, and an entire moral system. The feeling of ressentiment leads to false moral judgments made on other people who are devoid of this feeling. Such judgments are not infrequently accompanied by rash, at times fanatical claims of truth generated by the impotency this feeling comes from.” (2003:5). Such a description should be eminently recognizable to us today, as it is expressed in numerous contexts, including sectarianism, environmentalism, feminism, socialism, and nationalism. But these abstract manifestations of collective ressentiment themselves tend to ‘obscure awareness’ that we as individual persons often suffer from the delusions and the fanaticisms of deeply cherished existential envies. Such malice as can be found within envy or jealousy is indeed, ‘as cruel as the grave’, for it permits us to desire not only to replace the other with ourselves but to see that envied other destroyed. We do not merely want to be ‘like’ them, we want them vanquished from both society and its corresponding history. In a word, ressentiment seeks the death of the other via a projection of a self-hatred at one’s own personal drawbacks.

            Perhaps the most vocal space of the play of ressentiment today appears in the conflict surrounding abortion. In the USA, where such numbers have not varied much for about three decades, 41% of men and 35% of women feel abortion should be banned in almost all cases. About 38% of the population overall takes this line. A reasonable model of human belief and behavior must not only take account of the impetus behind such a belief, it must also account for the beliefs of the opposing two franchises, that is, the 59% of men who favor legal abortion and the 65% of women who do so, and thus around 62% of all persons in the USA. The governmental structure of said nation works to protect minority rights and in doing so, historically may have been said to over-represent any such minority on the political stage. The coincidence of this or that regime appointing chief justices also can lend leverage to specific points of view at certain moments in such a nation’s history. For the issue of abortion, this is one such moment.

            In saying this, we have touched the surface only of the ‘how’, and not taken the dive necessary to reveal the ‘why’. That is, why is abortion itself an issue at all, let alone a political one? It is well known in studies of gender development that males and females are socialized radically differently. Men are challenged by autonomy and fail to learn the skills required to ‘look after themselves’. This is reflected in their dependency upon women in conjugal relations and in child-raising. It is only very recently that the majority of men have taken up some portion of domestic labor; round numbers here are on the order of about one-third performing about half such labor, another one-third doing some of it but still the minority, and a final one-third doing nothing at all. During previous decades when men accounted for most of the public work force and almost all of the household income, this ‘balance’ appeared to function well enough. We should not put a valuation on such a symbiosis as was idealized in the ‘bourgeois’ family, since it has been well-documented that such an arrangement came at great cost for both dominant genders. Both Emma Goldman and Engels are to be credited with the most important critiques of this family type and insofar as it still exists, these critiques retain their validity. At the same time, if men’s impotency has to do with attaining a sense of independence, this is nonetheless an ideal of most men. For women, socialized to be caregivers and to give more generally without demur, the challenge is to simply preserve their own selfhood in the face of others demanding that they fulfill absent characteristics of an holistic self.

            The stage is thus set for mutual envy. On the one hand, men resent women’s self-sufficiency as well as their ability to provide emotional succor to others. They resent the female’s sexual energies and capabilities – no male virility can outlast female ‘availability’, so to speak – and, at least in the past, their general ‘beauty’ as defined by the esthetics of the day. Even now, for instance, supermodels are almost exclusively female. On the other hand, women resent men’s neediness, their immaturity when it comes to working with others, and their objectification of women as idealized sources of both Eros and the means to ward off the thanatic drive so prevalent in men, who have been socialized with correspondingly more violence than have women. The ethnographic work ‘Worlds of Pain’ wincingly documents this mutual resentment which gradually turns to the more malicious form of envy. For men, feeling ‘roped into’ marriage seems a cliché, but it is nevertheless a real sensitivity. They claim to be ‘trapped’ by the woman, whose own needs they struggle to satisfy in the present-day labor market and perhaps also in the boudoir. Yet the woman is equally trapped. Before ever actual children may appear, she is saddled with an ‘overgrown child’, to quote the many transcribed extracts, whose needs seem to grow in direct proportion to time served. The freedom and informality of a first date does not a marriage make.

            Children are mostly a bond upon the woman. They are thus potential leverage for a man to bring the freedom of the woman to ground. Not only is the cycle from conception to birth a dangerous one for women, post-parturition illnesses abound. But it is to the psychological burden of pregnancy that any ethical analysis must point. Children certainly suffer from this other resentment – it is no fault of theirs that they are born but many parents are possessed of the sense that children somehow ‘owe’ them; a clear delusion of ressentiment which the old also hold against the young in general – but it is more directly women who find themselves entangled within conflicting demands; the proverbial ‘second shift’, the idea of the ‘supermom’ and so on. We are not as certain when it comes to defining what it means to be a ‘super-dad’. We would argue here that the men who seek to ban abortion do so out of a patent ressentiment against women in general. By extension, the women who seek the same harbor that same violent envy against other women who seem more at liberty than they. This relative social freedom may be sourced in a variety of socialized beliefs and values, but the most salient variable that influences the relative rate of abortion between groups of women is status in the labor market. Professional or full-time long-term career oriented women have fewer children than meager status working women whose life of labor does not return many rewards. All of us live off this penitential form of labor, and it is global.

            We are also aware that the actual instances of abortion vary according to socio-economic status. In the USA this is simply due to the fact that the procedure is expensive. Indeed, in nations where medical care is ‘free’, we do not see widespread attention to abortion as a public or political issue. So the motivation for women who desire legal abortion access is that they wish to maintain this public status as well as a certain material level of lifestyle and consumption, and resent both their misgivings about being potentially self-seeking and thus also less of a ‘true’ woman. For men who favor legal abortion, they too desire a specific quality of life and may also feel that their dependence upon women is not tied to the woman being herself tied to children. Such men have themselves status and wealth enough to simply ‘trade out’ this or that intimate partner over much of the life course and thus are not bound to a particular marriage mate who is willing to ‘put up’ with their other male weaknesses, still very much present. True ‘no fault’ divorce is in reality based upon more or less equal access to resources, whether these are material, psychical, or emotional and ethical. Given the ratio of urban-rural, educated-less educated, and the distribution of wealth and access to cultural institutions and health care, the prevailing numbers associated with views on abortion in the USA reflect closely such numbers associated with the usual suite of ‘life-chance’ variables.

            While at first glance it seems that the levels of ressentiment and accompanying delusions – those who favor abortions are ‘immoral’, even ‘evil’ rather than in reality simply pragmatic and self-interested – weigh heavily upon those with negative views on abortion, those who favor legal abortion maintain a corresponding set of delusions about their opponents – they are ‘misogynists’ or ‘fascists’ rather than in reality being culturally impoverished and marginalized relative to the means of production – and thus also have to reckon with sources of existential envy which may have their expression in the denial of community or the import of familial ties. In sum, women who disfavor abortion resent the relative liberty of higher status women; men who disfavor abortion resent their dependence upon women in general; women who favor abortion resent men in general – specifically their would-be intrusiveness through the presence of children as a form of male leverage – and men who favor abortion resent any woman who would impinge upon their ‘earned’ status and idealized ‘freedom’ but who also must maintain the means to be relatively independent themselves. Though it does appear that ressentiment itself is carried more upon the side of disfavor in this issue, we should not be overly quick to clear those who favor abortion on this count given the highly polarized political division in the contemporary USA. Both masses no doubt imagine that ‘their’ country would be better off if all those on the ‘other’ side were dead and gone. This is ultimately the arbiter of the social presence of malicious existential envy.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, and was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences of over two decades.

The State of the Division Address

The State of the Division Address

            I speak to you today from an unknown location. This place which has no name, and which can only be called therefore a space, is nothing less than the Now. It is immanent; it is fullest presence. It calls to the conscience and yet must defer its response to the future. This future does not yet exist and yet it in turn is imminent, almost upon us. It is simply what is next, and because we cannot entirely know the next thing, event, time or place, its import escapes us. Living as humans within the ambit of mortal consciousness, knowing the past exists as memory, trace, artifact and history; knowing the present is too fleeting to dwell within; and knowing that the future is itself unknowing of its own presence, it is perhaps inevitable that we turn elsewhere to understand the meaning of our condition, odd and fragile.

            Even though each one of exists simultaneously in all three guises of abstract time – we have memories and we live in cultures which have histories; we are ‘in’ the moment without being inside of it as if we were halted and time had stopped; and we design our lives so that a future of some kind is expected if not entirely taken for granted – and thus each of us understands, however incompletely, the indwelling of our beings in that unknown location which nevertheless speaks to us of existence itself, it has become clear that we as a mass culture have limned ourselves into an unenviable position regarding the definition of this ‘elsewhere’ to which we direct all of our collective energies.

            The choice laid before us is one between two further abstractions, freedom and salvation. They are opposites, even antagonists, and their hold upon our imagination is such that if we do decide for one or the other, the one left to the side is immediately scrabbled up as if it too were part of the singular decision; being saved first is also being free, being free first is thence being saved. Because these two conceptions refer to states of being and their relationship to Being, whatever the definition of this may be – it matters only for the ethnographer to delineate the contents of belief, here it is a question of contrasting absolute values of faith – it is always possible to add to one’s choice an indefinite list of other traits which are claimed to accrue to the original state. One thus finds ultimate freedom in an intimacy with a Being and a history which offers salvation of beings, or one finds that one has saved oneself, not only from the History of Being as an alternative and oft-seen superior ontology, but also from the very much human history that is just as often understood to have been a conflict sourced in beliefs about Being. So, on the one side, salvation offers an exeunt from our mortality; it is the finitude which hallmarks historical consciousness uplifted into the infinitude which expresses the continuity between Man and God. The cosmos presents to us no longer a finite experience, but one more in line with its own cycle of infinity. On the other side, finitude is accepted as a celebration of the open future in which anything may occur and through which I may become anything I desire, thereby placing me within the infinitude of cosmic evolution. My finite existence become infinite through my participation in that ongoingness which in its totality must escape my partial imagination. In this very incompleteness do I find my ultimate freedom, since I have no reason nor ability to know the whole.

            Both of these absolute values are powerful expressions of the will to life. Salvation seeks life eternal and thus the overcoming of both will and history. Freedom desires a will that is itself endless, hooked into both human history and that cosmic. I marvel at both senses of how we are what we are, a consciousness made up of an ethical conscience, a reasoning wide-awake thinking, and an uncannily clever unconscious which, contrary to some popular psychological accounts as well as old-world demonologies, tirelessly works wholly in the service of that very reason. Once again, while salvation seemingly offers sanctity to being, freedom appears to offer it sanity. The difference lies in one’s willingness to frame will and faith either together as sibling allies, or as contiguous but contrasting interests and drives. Salvation unites will and faith by subsuming will as the worldly manifestation and agent of faith. Freedom unites both by defining them as almost the same thing; one must have faith in one’s will, for instance, and one must will oneself to have faith in the face of both an impersonal though intimate history, and a cosmos both anonymous and aloof. Salvation tells us that we are not alone in our quest for the wisdom, not of the ‘how’, but of the why, while freedom declares that our solitude is at the very heart of authentic choice and the being-able of living as a reasoning being. It takes the presence of human reason to be evidence of our evolutionary ability to free ourselves from that very evolution. Salvation seeks to convince us that this ability is the kerygmatic gift of a God; bestowed upon us so that we can know of God’s will and perhaps even of God’s mind. Freedom assures us that the Gestalt of the entire history and pre-history of our species is contained within that same kernel; our ability to think things through with no end is thus just as infinite as is the mind of any divinity.

            So is it an effort merely of perspective to offer ourselves these two ultimate sensibilities? Are we describing to ourselves the converse side of the same shining object, the brilliance emanating therefrom blinding us to the reality that it is the same thing of which we are speaking? If this is indeed the case, then we have defined both salvation and freedom only incompletely, using the other as a foil and as counterpoint, when in fact they are two names for the same basic will to live and live on. At present, from our unknown mortal space, we can only suggest that this may be the most reasonable manner to think about them. In doing so, we avoid placing them in competition with one another and we may even be able to use each one as a way of understanding the manifold of the other. This is not a purely historical exercise, in that we are not solely interested in questions such as ‘how did the concept of freedom change or limit that of salvation?’ or ‘how does the lingering belief in salvation impact or impinge upon our conception of freedom?’ and the like. No, such a question that brings together salvation and freedom in a tandem query about the meaning of being-present, currently unknown, states at once the division in our contemporary culture and a manner through which it can be partially overcome. It tells us why we are so divided, which in itself is a kind of Godsend, as well as expressing a doubly powerful means by which we can understand one another with a great deal more authenticity and intimacy than we currently do.

            For right now, the extended presence of the Now in both directions, as it were, we are nothing but division, and the boundary drawn up in the sand beneath and between us is inscribed by the hand of a being who has taken on for itself either the divine or the cosmic. In both we are utterly mistaken about our condition. In reality, we are neither the authors of salvation nor of freedom, for we are but expressions, in both narratives, of either a superior being which is Being ‘itself’, or another order of being which encompasses all beings. To pretend to either is to at best avoid our status as the ‘one who can think but not know’, the ‘one who can reason through unreason’ – referring to the interface between the conscious mind and that unconscious – and the ‘one which lives on in spite of death’. Neither the divine nor the cosmic has any use for such devices as we have conjured for ourselves, so in dividing I and thou, I am not only doing a disservice to that mortal genius I am also dragging the infinite down to my small level. Only in my narrow imagination does it concede and consent.

            Instead, this state of the current division in our global society should inform us that we are dangerously near the precipice which heralds the loss of all meaning. In placing overmuch the value of absolution into absolute terms, both the purveyor of salvation and that of freedom have excerpted themselves from their own shared humanity. In spite of the historical argument that salvation speaks to us of something that has always been and is itself timeless, whereas freedom recognizes that the essence of time is tempered only through temporality and thus cannot be overtaken by Being, it is more truly a question of whether or not there is to be a human future. In this, salvation steps aside from the ongoingness of the imminent future, and freedom seeks to influence, even control, its oncoming mass. Salvation pulls me out of its way, freedom allows me to step bodily into it. More truly then, the apparent choice to be made between the two absolute values is one of ethics. Do I take myself out of history entirely, that passed and that yet to be made, or do I throw myself once more into the flux through which I have also lived? Is this a choice for the moment, or is it rather that we are staring in the face of the very passage to Being? In a word, that we must choose freedom first and let salvation happen in due course, that freedom is in fact a choice and salvation is simply an outcome? It is too trite to simply tell ourselves that ‘heaven can wait’, for in imagining that something other is indeed awaiting us takes the edge away from living being; that double-sided edge, one of which we own as a visionary sword and the other of which threatens us at every mortal turn. No, just here we must step back and honestly answer to our ownmost condition: I cannot know of my own salvation; I cannot avoid my own freedom. So the very choice between absolute values is itself a false one. Spurious and specious, both salvation and freedom, one the unknowing fraud of premodernity and the other the overwrought charade of our own time, have combined to render human existence too partial to its own projections. The time has come to place both to the side and step away from the disunity they have sowed amongst our shared humanity. Only by doing so will we have an opportunity to discover that if and in the first place, either of them were ever real.

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

We Latter Day Eugenicists

We Latter Day Eugenicists

            Surely it has been an open secret that the US supreme court is contriving a means by which to overturn the 1973 abortion ruling known as ‘Roe versus Wade’. Perhaps, with a sense of both legacy and posterity, they will attempt to do so on the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark case. The ‘leaked’ missal that purportedly reveals news to this regard can be taken as both political theater but also as a signal that the court’s neo-conservative leaning justices will only wait so long before acting. At once a signal, value-neutral in itself, will become a welcome sign for that sector of American society which desires a ‘return’ to a kind of real-time Gilead, as well as an unsurprising signpost for the observer who desires to chart the course of culture-driven politics during a period of global reactionary movement.

            Yet the conflict concerning the definition of what constitutes a human life is not, at least at first, a political discourse. In my view, such a topic is existential and also perhaps ethical, before it is political, simply because humanity is first a living organism conscious of its own existence. This is the basis upon which any ‘political animal’ can evolve and to which any logic of subsequent political language can obtain. Even so, the boundary between what is merely organic life and self-conscious human existence is mobile and notoriously difficult to agree upon. In that, biology becomes politics and in rapid fashion. The question that can be asked of this social conversation, a cultural conflict, a political hot-potato is ‘what drives the fascination with defining distinctly human life?’ and only thence ‘what is the motive behind the sense that abortion is itself an interesting issue?’.

            Certainly the definition of what is human has altered, often radically, across the epochs. For social contract societies, to be human was to be this people, this group, this community, and no other. As the scope and complexity of human social organization accrued to itself a basic scale and social hierarchy, gradations of humanity became commonplace. Some hierarchies were so gray-scaled as to have hundreds of minute distinctions – several from colonial Mesoamerica included over three hundred ‘versions’ of humanity, ranging from ‘pure-indigenous-rural-savage’ to ‘pure-Madrid-born-aristocrat’ – and even in our more enlightened days, we often imagine that due to variance in both behavior and belief, this or that one of us ‘descends’ or ‘ascends’ the exiguous ladder of self-creation. We have neither entirely lost the sense that our enemy is less human than we, nor that my neighbor must exhibit the same kind of sensibility as myself in order to remain fully human in my eyes.

            So the concern for defining what constitutes a human life is, in part, a concern for self-definition. Who am I, as a human being? What does my humanity mean? Not only to me but to others as well. Knowing that we as individuals are altered by the course of life in that our existence changes our self-definition – ideally, we would become ‘more’ humane, if not technically ‘more human’, as we mature – we also must consider the problem of how to adapt to these changing definitions. At length, we must also confront the denial of existence, that which is not life at all, human or otherwise, and we belatedly realize that of whatever human life consists, it cannot surpass its own fragile boundary. The inability of human life to experience and thus come to a patent understanding of its own completion in death, suggests that we are self-conscious of ensuring that the beginning of such a life be well-defined and vouchsafed against a premature lack of definition and thus lack of humanity, simply because we are aware that this same lack will eventually overtake us.

            Seen in this way, abortion becomes an active expression of that which cannot be lived. It is the unlived agency of premature burial. It is active because I have chosen to end a potentially human life before it can take on its own ability to self-define that life which is its own without yet being its ownmost, and it is unlived because the object of my action is unable to experience the distinction between life and death, having not been able to undertake its own thrown project. This seems poignant but it also can become maudlin if we dwell overlong on the sentiment that each of us has a ‘right’ to life. No, life is a privilege that we give one another, and that on a daily basis. My defensive driving, my disinterest in firearms, my lack of inebriation, my self-care – doing yoga instead of viewing pornography, perhaps – confers the privilege of ongoing life upon both myself and others. Life as a human being is both a task and a gift due to its historical character and the fact that our kind of existence is aware of its equivocal history. Yet neither task nor gift originate in some other existence, let alone essence. Their pressing tandem represents the very character of the human condition and is not the hallmark of divinity within history. Abortion is a deferring of the privilege of one life in order to redefine the privilege of another.

            This may at first appear radical. Yet considering that our very social existence, our general quality of life and the way in which we desire to live – consuming at our leisure, feeling that we have a right to bear and raise ‘our own’ children, allotting vast resources to defending what is ‘ours’ against all comers and so on – comes to mean that the lesser other is herself aborted. Perhaps this takes place in the womb itself, but more often it is reflected in relative mortality and life expectation tables worldwide. A rising tide is said to float all boats, but the boats themselves have not been equal since the first social hierarchies emerged. We live aboard the super-yachts of the seven seas. And with this contrast comes the rationalization that the lesser other really is worth less, that ‘my’ children come first and others must look after themselves if they can. This contradicts the ethics of all religious world systems since the advent of Buddhism, as well as those of the Enlightenment. Paul Ricoeur summed it best: ‘The love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world’.

            So abortion as a premature ending of the privilege of human life must itself be redefined before any other discussion regarding its ethics takes place. We must take this moment to examine how the way we define our own humanity places the distant lesser other at some risk, or yet replaces them with impalpable versions of ourselves, to be counted upon to help defend the front lines against those who would make us lesser. This is not a ‘war of all against all’, but rather a conflict about the question concerning whose life is worth more and whose less. And however many fetuses are ‘saved’ or no, it is by the post-partum practice of geopolitical abortion that we will be ultimately judged as having attained a better humanity or as remaining the parochial and incompetent, halting humans of our primordial infancy. Indeed, the very concern surrounding the origins of human life in the present may be understood as a misplaced nostalgia for the birth of our species. To make this the center of any definition of human life in the present day is to utterly mistake the character of how we live in that selfsame present. To do so by a political calculation is to knowingly commit to a premature grave the vast other who redeems our self-serving humanity with its lifeblood, drained in infancy, aborted in the back-alley of our base consciousness that seeks to recognize and realize only that which is closest, the closed closet of my overly self-conscious will to death.

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

Old World Mind, New World Machine

Old World Mind, New World Machine

            Yet anyone can follow the path of meditative thinking in his own manner and within his own limits. Why? Because man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being. Thus meditative thinking need by no means be ‘high-flown’. It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history. (Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 1959, page 47).

                For many of us, thinking is itself a practical matter. It dwells upon the matters at hand, it lives only for a specific purpose. This because our society provides such ready-mades, the stuff of the collective perception that constitutes a worldview, that in fact we are seldom called upon to think at all. At the same time, perhaps most of us consider thinking to be the province of the scientist or the philosopher alone. For the preeminent thinker of the twentieth century to remind us that this is not at all the case is of great import. It is also quite correct. What the species-essence of humanity is, is thought, made manifest through consciousness. It was once only sentience, billions of years ago, as organic life separated itself from the inorganic fabric of the cosmos. It was once only instinct, when enough complexity accrued through evolutionary organicity to enact the senses protean and proprioceptive. And most recently, it was once only habit; whatever appeared to work was repeated, honed, made second nature.

            But in this very process of experiment and experience, thinking presently arose. It was, as it mostly is today, originally geared into the eminent practicality of how to practice a uniquely human life within an anonymous nature. Humans are generalists, we belong to no ecological niche, we adapt to any variable, we shun the specialization of our once closer kindred animals. Even so, thought was itself not yet present. Thinking was a thinking through, a thinking about, attending to a process or an object problem, and not a thinking-in-itself, thought for the sake of thought alone. This final aspect of consciousness as we know it is what can be called ‘meditative’ thinking. It differs from Eastern forms of meditation, wherein thinking in the Western sense is to be temporarily expunged. This more well known definition of meditation remains a healthy exercise for the mind and body alike, but it serves the futurity of our species-being only insofar as it sets up a contrast between what consciousness is when it becomes less active; outwardly more like a lower form of life – a sensory apparatus that only reacts – and inwardly perhaps more like one higher – the Gods have no need of thought as all is already known to them.

            But meditating upon an abstract problem, including the perennial ‘problem of consciousness’, an ontological puzzle, or even the ‘problem of knowledge’, an epistemological issue, is quite different than ‘meditation’ in the spiritual sense, transcendental or otherwise. It is the idea that one can have an idea that prompts the sense that I as a human being am capable of thought. Not that ‘my idea’ is prone to any singular possession. Anything we do is automatically the proof property of the species at large. Even if we tell no one, it influences our acts, our further thoughts. In a word, I am altered in my very being by having this thought, as I am created as a thrown project by having thought itself.

            Yet if thinking is not the province of the philosopher alone, why then do we have so many occasions to note its relative absence in the world? If anyone can participate, why then do we not see more interest in this regard? The most authentic challenge to thinking comes from our need to think about the world. We imagine that our ‘patch of home ground’ is indeed what is ‘closest to us’. The exhortation to ‘act locally but think globally’ is a noble one, nonetheless, it simply substitutes a smaller concern in the world for the world as a concern. Both are objects in this sense, and thus even if their scale differs, they remain quantities, things, about which we attempt to negotiate or ‘figure out’. The sense that something either works or it does not promotes a thinking that is sustainable only within the context of work, and increasingly, simple labor. Let me use the obvious contraption ‘thing-king’ to designate this kind of thought process. In thing-king, there is a beginning and an end, and both are precise enough to ingratiate a practice that may, over time, become a personal habit or yet a cultural habitus. We notice a problem, issue, challenge, or mistake. This is the start of practical thought, thinking about a thing. ‘Fixing’ the issue is the only goal. Many means may be necessary, certainly, but the end is defined at the beginning and as Heidegger’s student Arendt has cautioned, we cannot ‘justify’ separating ends and means in the trite manner of the moral chestnut simply because the ends have already delineated the means and therefore have by definition ‘justified’ them ahead of time.

            Not that this is necessarily an ethical problem pending the ends. By far most everyday challenges require no revolutionary means to achieve a desired outcome. They neither demand the radical nor the novel. They are simply part and parcel of ordinary existence and remain within a logistics of worldliness. It is in this way, even though they are deemed to be necessities of human life, that such practicalities prevent thinking from arising. That this is an authentic bracketing of thought is evidenced by the lifeworld’s insistence upon its own reproduction. We cannot think in a void. But practice – the fixing of logistical issues, the enactment of means tending toward finite goals which can be known or at least observed from a short distance – and even praxis – the sense that practical theory is itself a means to world-historical action – do not suffice, and can never suffice, for thought itself. For thinking, as opposed to thing-king, is encountered, not enacted. Its goals are undefined ahead of time, its means are diffuse and seemingly have a life of their own. Thinking is, in a word, about nothing other than thoughts and thus takes place only within the history of consciousness.

            So while it is reasonable to exclaim at this juncture that, ‘I have no time to meditate on abstractions, things that aren’t really things at all. I have to get on with it’, we must ask the question, ‘what, exactly, does getting on with things mean, suggest, imply?’ At once we have our genuine response: human life is composed chiefly of activities that from time to time need to be adjusted to practical purpose and to finite ends. Even so, the truth of this statement is only the case within a wider understanding of existence, one that includes, and indeed is originated by, our species-essential ability to think at all. Practice and praxis alike represent means only, and whatever ‘ends’ that are contained within this or that process of such thing-king are themselves but further means.

            But means to what? Meditative or contemplative thinking is its own end insofar as it is a means to itself. This may sound circular as well as pompous, but consider thinking with the understanding that thought is neither a subject alone – our thoughts are historical, factual, mythical, as well as being biographical; but then again, what is so much of our biography if not habitus made into habit? – nor is it an object – thinking is very much not a thing in the physical sense, and attempts to reduce thought to neurochemical combinations and synaptic structures only serve to place the process by which thought arises into some more precise locales. Given our human success is due to our ability to ‘think things through’, the sense that we should try to locate thought as if it were itself a thing seems counterintuitive, for our thinking mimics our wider heritage as evolutionary generalists. We are potentially unlimited as a species, even if I as an individual must meditate ‘within my limits’. This is the more profound meaning of the near and the far to be found in sudden declamations to ‘think globally, act locally’ and so on. I act and think within certain limits, many of them not my own in any individuated sense, yet I can also at least imagine thinking, if not truly acting, in a much wider way. It is that single act of imagination which allows us to encounter the essence of thinking-as-it-is.

            Yet if there is an uneasy, even somewhat suspicious relationship between practice and thought, the one still admits to the other that its practices originate in contemplative thinking. It is otherwise with the inauthentic barriers to meditative thought that our everyday world has constructed. These include the distractions of the newer lifeworld of the idolatrous thing, the fetishized commodity, but as well, the delusions of the older lifeworld’s customs and rituals, what is defined as habitus and heresy alike. Between the machine of the new and the mind of the old, human thinking is confined to a space stenochoric to the future and at once reduced to peering at a thin slice of the past. Custom represents only the most common elements of culture, no matter if this or that ritual comes once in an individual lifetime. And the technology of a culture in turn represents what is most commonly practiced by those same individuals. Both rely upon repetition, and only challenge us when the outcomes expected from them do not automatically materialize.

            Even when this is the case, ‘fixing it’ immediately becomes the end to which the means at hand are harnessed. There can be no thought outside of these circles, whether sacred or secular, whether customary or technological. But meditative thinking is neither sacred nor secular, it engages no loyalty to religion revealed or ‘civil’, and in this lies the key to our encounter with it: thinking is itself revolutionary. By this I mean that in order to engage in thinking as a species-essential gift and task, one must needs shed all loyalties to both custom and craft. One must begin to understand means and ends as artificial boundaries that impede the act of thought by reducing it to a specific point-to-point process. There is no ‘there’ to thinking, as Heidegger has implied. It is a here and now encounter with the new and with my ownmost being which is ever new. This is what is closest to us; our own being in the world as I breathe and as I am. Yes, this existence precedes an understanding of essence but it does not negate it, in the same manner as though we have historically given ourselves credit for the death of the Gods and the shattering of the illusory otherworld, does not then mean that otherness no longer exists.

            For thinking is itself other. It is other to life as we have known it, to history as it has been, to myself as I know myself and what I expect from myself. It is other to what is customary, but also to what is technical and of technique alone. It is other to the generalized otherness of the social fabric and it thus gifts us with the ongoing task of being more than we have taken ourselves to be and to once have been. The old world mind is an unthought vice of tradition alone, unchallenged and too well known to aid the human future, while the new world machine is an unthinking device which cannot know itself and thus has no future. Only human thought, meditative and contemplative, abruptly present and yet in the ever-closing presence of the future, opening us to the possibilities of consciousness in its relationship with the cosmos from which it has perhaps unexpectedly sprung, marks us as worthy of a continued existence.

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

The Question of Democracy

The Question of Democracy

            It is commonplace at the moment to point to the war in Ukraine as a test of democracy. Its meaning there, on the ground, is transparent enough. Belarus, essentially a ‘client’ state of Moscow, is a case in point regarding the potential shift in social freedoms that a defeated Ukraine might well undergo. But it is also the case that in general, most citizens in every nation want a society that is more free than it currently is. This is not to say that they simply desire to ape any specific other country, say Finland, which perennially tops the best countries’ lists both in the objective scales of the world social health index and the more subjective sensibilities represented in the world happiness report, recently published for 2021. The idea of ‘the best’ aside for the moment, it remains clear that most ‘average’ citizens are yet vehicles for their respective traditions and thus do not entirely relish living in autocratic states. From Iran to North Korea, from Sudan to China and back again, what they do is make do.

            The politics of autocracy differ from the cultures of tradition along a number of lines. One, State and Tradition hail from different historical worldviews. Where tradition has not, or has not yet, given way to ideology, its contents may be millennia old. Theocracies attempt to funnel some of these pre-modern or even ancient contents into their ideological platforms but the effect, though very real in some of its consequences – the ‘Sharia’ law in Iran, for instance –  is yet symbolically fragile. Modernity and its predecessors have never mixed well, and it is almost always the case that those who are attracted to the latter day sainthood of revivalism or yet millennialism are themselves from the social margins. Two, the State is originally an urban phenomena that is acquisitive; it needs to grow its franchise and thus its power in order to survive. Tradition tends to be rural and seeks only its own reproduction over ensuing generations. This second schism between politics and culture sees the State often ‘dragging’ traditionalists into what passes for the distended present, but this tension also prevents the State from looking too far ahead of itself. Fittingly, and lastly, tradition looks rearward and the State looks forward, though only to a point. This third difference is the most disturbing for anyone hoping for a better human future, or perhaps any human future at all.

            It is a difficult mélange, our contemporary political culture. Democracies, limited as they are in reference even to their own ideals, struggle to balance competing interests yes, but more so, and more deeply, conflicting claims regarding the definition of the ‘good’ society. For the margins, the premise of an extant God may still be at work, fronting a promise that any future means the end of history and the transfiguration of humanity. Or, at least, some elect community thereof. These citizens have no authentic interest in democracy just as they may shun autocracy. Their path is toward an inner light. The problem they present to the rest of us is that their mission often seeks to include those who it patently resents, even if it is to merely bid us onward along the highway to hell. A significant minority of North Americans cleave to such traditions, no matter how Barnumesque they became over the course of the nineteenth century, and no matter how personalist became their ‘beliefs’. In the crisis of today’s democracy, it is equally important to look critically and candidly at the aspects of our own society that are fundamentally anti-democratic.

            And it is easy enough to do so, even if the stakes seem lesser than on the battlefield afar. Our own conflicts of culture and politics center around the difference between premodern moralities and contemporary ethics. The first posits timeless principles, such as the Decalogue. The second searches for a new Decalogue, a different table of values that reflects a radically altered reality. But though we might be smug to the point of disdain should some old-world voice sermonize at us, the neo-conservative margins of liberal society serve us more as a convenient decoy; a way in which to transfer the burden of defending democracy as over against a straw person; someone who can be mocked, derided as if he were not actually present, not unlike our conception of the God who is supposedly dead and yet who maintains vast legions of faithful. Instead of allowing such self-made decoys to distract us, the authentic task placed in front of the true democrat is rather to examine one’s own loyalties.

            Three anti-democratic features immediately leap out from fully modern society, institutions that borrow only the trappings of traditions and those mostly as a marketing device. One, the presence of independent schools in our education system. Two, the lack of proportional representation in our political system, and three, the prejudice against youth participating in that same system. The three are linked, of course. In order to lay more fully an authentic claim to actually being a democracy, all three must be rendered obsolete. First, all private, parochial, independent and charter schools in Canada must be shut down, their public funding – the reality that those who cannot afford to send their children to such schools nevertheless help pay for them through taxes is a scandal that approaches a kind of banal evil – redirected to a universal and singular school system. Such independent institutions serve only to reproduce status and wealth hierarchies and as such they are radically anti-democratic. The resources of the various elites – whether these are purely economic, as they are in most cases, or whether exclusion is practiced by ethnic background or religious creed – must be placed into the common pool. This is how a democracy learns. Second, proportional representation must be adopted at all political levels, replacing the so-called ‘first-past-the-post’ rubric. This will ensure that regional and local voices are heard in a manner that more reflects their diversity. This is how a democracy governs. Third, the voting age must be lowered to age twelve, reflecting the age already identified in Canadian law that separates childhood from youth. Persons of this age already can have sex with one another, cannot be physically coerced, can seek out health and wellness counsel, and are subject to legal penalties for transgressing the law. They are thus already judged to be fully human enough to also be able to vote, and are certainly cognitively capable of understanding ‘the issues’ as well as most average voters. It is another scandal tending towards evil that the same ‘arguments’ against youth voting were used to prevent women from voting. The very same. Consign such bigotry to the dustbin of the past. This is how a democracy includes.

            One education system in which an atheist student can study Islam, and a Muslim student can study Buddhism, in which any student can learn Mandarin or a once this-gender student can transform themselves into that-gender and so on. And an expanded and far more representative political dynamic that will force politicians to be more attentive and perhaps even responsible to all citizens no matter their age or their voting patterns. Such changes are not only necessary for the future of democracy, they are as well a transparent signal to autocracy that this is what we are defending; no longer are we going to be tolerant of our own incomplete project regarding human freedom, and no longer will we wanly wink at the inequities that stain our own relative freedom and signal the leaders of unfreedom that we too, after all, have their immoral backs.

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

Veni, Vidi, Vichy?

Veni, Vidi, Vichy?

            From 1940-1944 Vichy was the ignominious puppet government for the Third Reich’s occupation of France as a whole. Consisting of collaborators, it toppled during the allied liberation of that part of Europe. In one of its few acts of humanity, it allowed one specific prisoner of war camp to become the only degree granting agency within the universe of camps that erupted across the continent like a radically metastasized cancer. This camp housed many important young intellectuals of the day and well beyond, including Mikel Dufrenne and Paul Ricoeur. The latter’s late work concerning the concept of justice and problem of historical forgiveness is no doubt testament to the time he served in such a place.

            But after two decades of time served in Afghanistan, what is the character of forgiveness here? No anti-Taliban Afghan would forgive us, for example. We abandoned them to a fate which was not at all preordained, though it will prove fatal to any possible vision which the vast majority of that country’s people might have begun to foster. Overnight, their culture regressed approximately 2.6 millennia. In a word, returned to the barbarism and blight of the pre-generalized ethics predating the trinity of newer Agrarian epoch religious world systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Yes, the Taliban claim to be Islamic, but this is a veneer, a convenient hat to wear, even a mask of gentility, perhaps. What they are is what all marginalized and neo-colonialized groups are: the mostly rural peasantry of a mode of production long surpassed in both discourse and geo-politics but stubbornly hanging about in the lands thus far forsaken by both capitalism and humanism.

            For previous to the advent of Buddhism, agrarians lived in caste systems that naturalized the sense in which certain classes of persons were deemed to be at best irredeemable – at least in their present incarnations – and at worst sub-human, even non-human. Hindu-Dravidian, Egyptian-Judaic, and Greco-Roman systems were quite honest about the hierarchy of pedigrees animating human beings. Slavery was a given in the West for example, with no need to justify it until the world of ideas began to slowly alter its course from mythos to logos. Even so, within each of these earlier trinity of Agrarian epoch belief systems the seeds for a common ethics and a universal understanding of one’s fellow human as not simply akin to oneself, but as another to self, as kindred with self, were present. These would include the origins of the scientific worldview in Greece, the sense of moral weight within a life lived in Egypt, the relative equality of intimacy between the dominant sexes in India, the idea of a deity with a human, historical interest in ancient Hebrew thought, and so on. Even if the inertia of traditions dies hard, the very idea that in 2021 one could even think about a state that runs itself through such ancient and surpassed self-understanding is almost beyond the imagination.

            And yet it remains as real. Today, women and children are the key chattel of yesteryear’s morals, and the reason why the abandonment of Afghanistan is so hard to bear in the West at least is that it exposes part of our own belief system for what it is. As did Death in Arcadia, the Taliban also dwell among us.

            From Texan and Polish anti-abortion laws, to the absence of domestic abuse laws in Russia, to the lack of potable water for many Indigenous Peoples in Canada, to the physical coercion of children in East Asia and the United States and some few parts of Europe alike, not to mention the racial and ethnic inequalities pervading almost all large political regions, it is clear that the more ancient rubrics of what constitutes not only human life, but a moral life, resonate from far beyond their collective historical grave. Anywhere we observe ourselves disdaining the other not for what she is as a person but for what she supposedly represents as a type, we are practicing those pre-generalized moralities of the earlier agrarian trinity. The abhorrence of slavery which is itself a very recent sensibility and one not at all universally shared, should not blind us to our adherence to more informal practices of servitude, from bullying and lying to our children to the idea of private property and everything in between. It is sage to recall that nary a hierarchy is left standing with the newer ethics. Forbearance, the love of one’s enemies, the castigation of false prophets and prophecies alike, combined themselves in a trenchant and lasting historical critique of the civilizations that had rested upon the idea that there really were different types of human beings out there, to the point of those on the bottom requiring nothing and being ‘life unworthy of life’, to borrow a Nazi favorite.

            In Afghanistan, young women in particular are so unworthy. But is it all that different for us? The tortured amalgam of our adoration of youth and yet our obsessive controlling of youth speaks to the same morality of ownership that was given its most grandiose forms in the culmination of the first sedentary civilizations. I worship you but you are mine nonetheless. You should be grateful to me for my affections, for an affection is all you are, in the end. An object of desire, a subject of my domain, pretty is as pretty does.

            Now the explanation for our abandonment of ‘them’ comes into focus. This is not a mere convenience of politics, let alone some euphemism for ‘tough love’ – these countries need to look after their own problems, god dammit – nor is it a simple logistical failure in the face of a mere one-hundred thousand mostly pedestrian fighters who have nothing to lose in any case. All of these are symptomatic rather of a loss of determination, which is also the first sign of a yet deeper malaise: we are yet tempted by the same morality that has overtaken marginal Afghanis and created through them the Taliban and like forces. It works for us at a personal level – as small as is my life, thank god I’m not someone like him – and it works at the cultural level – for instance, youth needs to be sanctioned and molded into passive producers-consumers. In a word, it is we who are the primary source of unworthy life in this world, not a bunch of ex-peasant illiterates who have little grasp of the faith they claim membership in. For how can the West provide a role-model to the otherness of the world at large by reproducing social status and wealth hierarchies at pace, continuing to treat its children and youth as only partial humans with correspondingly partial human rights, and vehemently envisioning women as the uninscribed obelisks of phallic desire? (You are any man’s prize, you are thus every man’s prize). Our schools, the fashion system, the family, the sporting life, and even some of our legal codes continue to pay heed to the morality that states with certainty that some people are not worth as much as others, and that some fewer people, perhaps, may even be utterly worthless.

            It was clearly not ‘worth’ our while to stick around protecting the youth of Afghanistan, of all places. The boys can become fodder for future conflicts, temporarily served by the girls who are to become enslaved to them in all ways. This more or less was the world before Prince Gautama had his revelation, and after over two and half millennia of conflicting values and histories, cultures and persons, we may well ask why we have ourselves become the latest Vichy government, collaborating not quite passively with the slavers, the murderers, the authoritarians, and most disturbingly, the old-world moralists of myth and inhumanity alike.

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

We are Not our own Justice

We are not our own Justice

            Shortly before his death, I happened to ask my father why he had become such an inveterate fan of the Montreal Canadiens. His answer astonished me, as this was the first time he had spoken of it, not in all of the long past years of my childhood and youth when we religiously watched the Habs each Saturday evening. They had drafted him back in 1945. He never donned the famous jersey as the joyful, though also incomplete and sobered, hordes of young men were returning from Europe and the talent pool got big again very quickly. Not to say my father was not a very competent ‘triple A’ player who faced off against the likes of Gordie Howe. He last laced up his skates in his early seventies, not unlike Howe himself.

            Now one doesn’t fact-check one’s own father nearing his death, if even such a thing could be checked. At this point one has earned the right to make certain claims, not that I have ever doubted this specific one. I make claims as well that hurt no one but myself perhaps – that I am Canada’s third leading social philosopher and ethicist behind Charles Taylor and Henri Giroux; that I am the leading thinker of my generation; that my 5000 page epic saga ‘Kristen-Seraphim’ is the story for our times and if one believes, as I do, that Jeshua ben Pantera, Saul of Tarsus, Prince Gautama, and Mohammed were all real people and thus the accounts of them and by them cannot be referred to as merely ‘stories’, then my epic is nothing less than the greatest story ever told – and in that I am no different from anyone else. But stories or no, the case becomes much different when we begin to make claims for others on their behalf.

            And the case becomes not so much different again but much uglier when these claims are intended not only to wound the other but to ‘cancel’ him entirely. And this is what is occurring today in a similar circumstance as my father’s end-of-war experience. I wrote about the concept of justice in a democracy in my 2013 book, We other Nazis: how you and I are still like them. In it, I suggested that liberal societies were at risk for authoritarian gestures not so much from their governments but rather, and with a horrible irony, from their citizens. For in a democracy one of the cornerstones is freedom of expression with that of association the material manifestation of this first freedom. And so, one might well use such a freedom to express an opinion that in our digital age could carry far more weight about it than it otherwise would, or should. The ‘cancel culture’ that has become fashionable in our days seeks to declare this or that person to be a non-entity because of some real or imagined error of judgement committed by said person, mimicking authoritarian regimes of the old Soviet Bloc, for instance. (Romania, in 1948, declared composer Nicolae Bretan to be a ‘non-person’, and this was one of thousands of such incidents emanating from such governments that we both quite rightly fear and despise). But the source of the error is not what is ultimately at stake, for even a crime is a singular event in a life, and in a sober light related to that which bathed the veterans returning from the revealed horrors of 1945 Europe, no ethical person would hold to the idea of ‘one strike, yer out!’. Indeed, much of the ethical majesty of the three more recent Agrarian age religious systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, centers around forbearance or forgiveness, both of which seem sadly lacking in our present climes. It is almost as if certain citizens imagine that they really are ‘without sin’, and thus the stones that are cast can claim a kind of other-worldly righteousness. In fact, such stones are the primitive projectiles of mere self-righteousness, a base sensibility that has animated much of the history of authoritarian politics. And if we are at least used to politicians themselves masquerading as ethical beings  – in a democracy, we can always get rid of them come next election and try again – then it is much more disconcerting that fellow citizens become rabidly righteous and more than this, seek to project this base and narrow righteousness into society at large. Politicians who leap on such ‘immoral panics’ should be far more than ashamed of themselves, especially when they themselves have amply demonstrated an utter disregard for professional and political ethics. Hitler himself knew how much Anti-Semitism existed in Europe; he didn’t have to create it but merely exploited its lengthy historical presence. Today’s ‘leaders’ are apt to do the same with what Max Scheler analyzed as ressentiment; malicious existential envy.

            What then is the source of such envy? The very hype and glamor that surrounds those we imagine to be graced with god-like fortune. To be drafted by a legendary sports franchise, for example, to win the lottery, to be the one to whom millions flock in concert tours or film releases or yet even ‘religious’ revivals, God help us. All such hype tells us that these few people are the best of the best, are somehow worthier than we, and that we should serve them, even indirectly. And however embittered, begrudging, or not quite convinced we may be regarding such claims, we do. But the briefest glance at the recent history of tabloid media and more tells us that we are ever ready for any take-down, evidenced or no. That the once mighty fall and we in our ressentiment rejoice. This is a misinterpretation of second wave Agrarian era ethics, borne on the once revolutionary sense that the ‘first shall be last’. Instead of understanding these novel ethics as a potent critique of caste-based social organizations – it is important to recall that our much vaunted Greece and Rome were populated by at least forty percent slaves, for instance – we have personalized them on two fronts; one, they are wielded as a weapon of mere opinion or taste; and two, they target individuals and not social systems. They are the very stuff of inauthenticity, and Jesus, for one, knew that when he cautioned the stone-casting crowd to engage in a little self-reflection. Today, our democratic legal systems mostly recognize this caution by saying to the offender that though there has been an error, your life is not over, nor should it be. Indeed, the entire point of learning from one’s mistakes is to live on as a better human being, as a better citizen, as a better person.

            Especially is this the case when the offender is young, barely an adult, committing an error that we would associate mostly with youth. But the self-righteous – who must have stoned themselves into some kind of unreflective stupor before picking up those same stones and directing them at others – would end such a person’s life and livelihood before it ever began. And that a national leader should agree and foment such a stoning. And that we live, so we claim, in a democracy of means, motives, and to a certain extent, materials as well. To this the ethicist, the philosopher, whatever his rank and standing and whether such a thing means little or nothing which is generally the case, must stand up and retort resoundingly, no and no again. Petty Hitlers aside, we are not our own justice. If a crime has been committed and the penalty paid, adjudicated in a formal and legal manner, then that must be an end of it. If one disagrees then it is the law that must be altered and not the life. And aren’t we fortunate to live in nations where such an alteration is so easily made, without need of revolution, civil war, the cavil and cant of politicians, the death camps. And who are those who would give up this good fortune? Ask yourself if you value your freedom of expression so little that you would use it as an unmerited weapon against those who have cast themselves down well before any stone has yet been thrown.

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

The Ethics of the Present

                                                The Ethics of the Present

            Nothing can make us be the past: it is only a spectacle before us which is there for us to question. As the questions come from us, the answers in principle cannot exhaust historical reality, since it does not depend on them for existence. (Merleau-Ponty 1973:10 [1955]).

            This ‘strange object which is ourselves’ is at once a scientific object – History ‘proper’ as a discourse and as a study – and also an objectification – a shifting ground lensed through ideology or even personal memory. We as present-day human beings can object to it, and in the ‘confrontation with the tradition’ this is in fact our collective duty, and yet we are, as Marx famously noted, subject to it. We do ‘make our own history’, and yet not entirely as we choose. Increasingly, so it appears, we often find ourselves unable to raise a metaphoric finger against the ‘forces of history’, since the present is, in this sense, only the sum total of the weight of effects which emanate yet from what was supposed to be ‘only’ the past. If we do not take the present to be either presence in the immanential sense of being-there and just there, just now, or as the presenting of the moment as some kind of disconnected exclamation of Being-present, then the present as the ongoingness of history does indeed carry all of this said weight around within it and about it. History is ourselves precisely for the reason that we ourselves are nothing other than our own respective histories, and History but a Gestalt of a gestalt.

            To think through the veil of history is part of the confrontation with what we can know of the tradition, what has come before us and yet remains within us; the unthought aspect of selfhood and at the same time also the temporally conscious sense of thrownness. This ‘veil’ is present both by the fact that much of actual human history remains unknown, and a portion of that – just so, we also do not know which proportion – forever unknowable. And it is a justifiable shock to realize how recent this other portion reaches. Lost films are a simple case in point. Much of the cinematic archive has been destroyed, irreplaceably, mainly because of the material upon which it was first recorded. In 1917, for example, an important suffragette documentary entitled ‘Birth Control’, by Margaret Sanger, was censored and banned before general release, given its then radical contention that woman must have complete control over their reproductive rights in order for them to take their place as fully human beings, both politically and existentially. No copies of this film are known to exist today; it is categorized as a ‘lost’ film. What is also lost for us is the ability to gauge the amount of maturity we have gained with regard to such a question in the intervening century. Sometimes, it seems, not much. In many regions, even within modern states, women’s reproductive rights are questioned, limited, stigmatized, denuded or co-opted. We have already noted that bio-power is certainly a factor. But the rationalizations given forth in the effort to continue to subject women to external control, and object to women’s bodies as inherently uncontrollable, rest only in a past which has yet to be fully confronted.

            Hence the great import of doing just that. We must first maintain the distinction between the ideal types analytic brought to the fore by Weber and the sense that we have living ideals, the way we would live if we could, the ‘blue sky’ of corporate forecasting, the everyday Nirvana of the ‘perfect family’ or the ‘well-adjusted child’ etc.. In Weber’s methodology, an ideal type is a non-historical model, constructed from aspects of real world cases that betray a pattern. Ideal types are not so much simulacra nor even reifications, but tend more to being expressions of the human desire to attain absolutes. Indeed, Weber’s Wertrationales Handeln – ‘rational action directed to an absolute value’ – speaks clearly of this orientation. The study of history as History also has this tendency, since, as Merleau-Ponty noted, it is we who are asking the questions of ourselves. The fact that we have progressed to the point of understanding this relation is a noteworthy first step and also a recent one, beginning with Vico in 1725. If we have kept close to our hearts the sense that we can live in an ‘ideal’ way, or even that there should be ideals at all – in James, of course, we have the ‘saint’ as a standard by which the rest of us could judge our own behaviors – it is due to the concurrent human situatedness of being perennially finite and increasingly discrete, the living equivalent of a Gaussian curve, perhaps. Beneath the center of such a distribution live the ideals of the day to day, those whose normative sensibilities and aspirations betray nothing of the larger historical apparatus around which we are encompassed, but also through which we can clamber up to the top for another point of view, a vista which would remain unknown to us if we did not first learn about the scaffolding underpinning it. The casual expression, ‘standing on the shoulders of history’, speaks not only to the sense that what is holding us up is not only not part of we ourselves, though we might mimic it in microcosm, but is also greater than ourselves. So much greater, in fact, that we must again confront the fact that much of it, perhaps most of it, will remain unknowable.

            But not unthinkable. This is the second distinction we must keep in mind, that between what cannot ever be known and that which, in spite of its mysterious or partial quality, can yet be imagined and thence thought through. What we need to avoid is the pitfall of all ideal types analysis, and that is the disconnect it makes between the pattern and the case, the model and the lived time of this or that social reality. Idealism in general is suggestive of this disconnect, and even if the superordinate benefit it brings to the analytic mindset is that of abstracted depth, leitmotif, deep structure or grammar, archiphonemic apse, or phenomenological ground, the ‘intuition of essence’, or even ‘simple’ ontology, its corresponding weakness includes a departure from lived time, and thus from Dasein itself. Abstraction in the study of history is also self-limiting in another manner: “In a word, we might say that it makes the specificity of ideological or religious organizations unthinkable. It transforms them into ‘representations’, or into ‘reflections’ of social structures. Put otherwise, it eliminates them as real factors of history: they become additions and secondary effects, precious only insofar as, through their transparency, they shed light on what instigated them.” (De Certeau 1988:119 [1975], italics the text’s). As persons, we live in a specific manner which at once, even if it is not analyzed in any objective way – ‘common sense’ reality and that scientific are also disconnected from one another in both worldview and purpose – must remain thinkable for us, and not its opposite. Life, in another word, must be both doable and thinkable; it must be able to be lived, whatever its depths of misery or blisses of joy that happen to be contained within its pulsing embrace, and what is bracketed or put to the side as ‘secondary’ or ‘additional’ is the very opposite of what ideal types analysis dockets and transcends.

            We are given to placing aside abstraction in day to day life not because we do not aspire to philosophy or because we might imagine ‘thought’, or yet the history of thought or consciousness, to be somehow beyond us, but rather because we already know what either needs to be known to do something, or we know where to look to find out. It is not the paucity of the intellect in the mundane sphere that limits human action, it is instead the list of questions that are liable to be asked. It is in the vested and invested interest of social institutions to both manufacture such lists and limit them, sometimes stringently, in order to reproduce themselves, which is ultimately the absolute value of rational organizations as Weber has discussed. If it is the case that such values and the means to attain them in principle occupy radically different spaces – the usual analogy of choosing amongst a number of closed doors and passing through this or that one – characterizing rational action directed to a finite goal, or Zweckrationales Handeln – in contrast with the metaphor of the fixed point in the heavens which can direct my action but in fact cannot itself be attained – the ‘absoluteness’ of such a value may well contain its own absolution but this as well cannot be experienced by me – then it is equally the case that historical institutions that do in fact exist or did exist are possessed of an absolute that, in a brilliant if oft disingenuous maneuver, turns the firmament of values into means.

            This is not a confrontation with tradition but rather a manipulation of it, but if we consider these two alternatives, it is clear that for social institutions, if the goal is simple reproduction and not even growth – this is characteristic of bureaucracies proper in Weber more so than say, mere for-profit companies, for instance, or ideologies over against religions, in general – manipulation is the correct choice. Not so for persons. For the individual, struck with having to both choose a door or two or three over the mortal cycle of one’s ability to so choose, and yet also being aware, even sometimes blinded by, that light hung up in the sky above, manipulating the light to show what is behind the door is clearly not an option. Instead, the groundwork for attaining different perspectives on the light from below is characteristic of our historical condition. It would appear at first, that any absolute value would forever be in the same relative position to its perceiver, but this is true only of unquestioning belief. Faith is shaken by perspective, knowledge amended, wisdom acquired. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the history that can be known is that the nature of the light itself alters over time, sometimes radically so.

            Even so, there is another horizon that in our contemporary world situation both attracts and repels us. It contains the questions both addressing ‘why have a light at all?’ and ‘what if the light is my reflection, what if I myself am the light?” in the same way that we have come to know ourselves as the ‘strange object’ of history. The first question is that borne on the critiques of the enlightenment, the key differences between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the history of modern thought. In a sense, these two questions are obverses of the same post-deistic coin; one side heralds the successor figure, humanity, the other is simply blank. Perhaps we are to imagine crossing over from one to the other, for as Nietzsche proverbially remarks, with the death of god the death of Man becomes imminent. Or it may be that what human light there is in the world develops itself into a model for its own action, through ethics and reflection both. If we are our own light, and if this thence becomes our absolute value, then such a being must desist in imagining that this light shines more upon the one than the many, we more than they, or yet the meek more than the magnanimous. If the light is a mere reflection or refraction of Dasein’s action in the world – perhaps this is the reason why it appears to follow us around so closely, since we are always where we are in some basic sense – then it can still serve as an inspiration as well as a check to note if we are still amongst the living, still alive and making our own history within either the confines of a tradition not confronted or oblique to the past, the present as a parallax and not as a mere reproduction. If the absolute value of modernity is individual freedom, then it befalls to each of us our own confrontation with every ounce of that historical weight which tethers us yet beneath the light of the world as it is.

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

The ‘Anals’ of History: e-scatological excrementalities

                        The ‘Anals’ of History: e-scatological excrementalities

                                    …the only pre-existent Logos is the world itself.

– Merleau-Ponty

                Just as did exegesis come to be generalized at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so, at the beginning of the twentieth, we see a generalization of the concept of immanence. It begins with Husserl’s lectures on internal time consciousness, given in 1904-5. The experience of time differs from measured, objective time. Lived time, to be analyzed with reference to the analytic of depth psychology in 1933 by Minkowski, includes a specifically human orientation to World and thus a specific comprehension of its worlding. This brings to immanence an entirely novel aspect, unknowing intentionality.

            The mascot deity with a human interest elides its Being into history and makes that history into the History of itself. Thus Yahweh inserts Himself into the human drama, somewhat begrudgingly, it may be admitted, but with the intent to take part in that drama, to shape it, to enroll its actors and to guide their decisions. At the same time, He brings an expectation that His people will not only act more or less within the compass of His interdicts, but also will remain loyal to His Being, even if it fragments itself within the historical world. This is knowing intentionality, and it does not alter the essential character of immanence because what is immanential to the phenomenology of eschatological history is a God itself.

            Although much of the interaction between the ancient Hebrews and their divinity is forgettable, a series of false starts and circumlocuted intrigues – the mere fact that Moses has to re-ascend to get a second copy of the Decalogue speaks volumes about the challenges facing a community that had defined itself by virtue of the previous ‘astral’ or great year procession age, that of Taurus the bull; viz. the golden calf – the power of the metaphor of that transition remains clear: any people who participate fully in the godhead of Being will now transcend their own pre-history; will bring to the world a new kind of Logos that is not beholden to history as it has been known. The newer ‘pastoral’ religions of the late agrarian epoch all re-evaluate this older authority relationship and reject it while maintaining cultural ties with its wider worldview; Christianity and Islam in the West, and Buddhism in the East. Instead of a mascot coach, as it were, we now see a shepherd guide, a messiah or prophet on earth, ensconcing himself yet more deeply into a history which is not his own. This risk is all and all; for Prince Gautama it means turning away from the world entirely while at once acting as a role model. In the West, we have two kerygmatic figures who are both role models and messengers, Jesus and Mohammed.

            These late agrarian ethical systems still have much to offer, especially in an age of anonymous social relations and material idolatries. At the same time, the conception of immanence is still possessed by a knowing intent, whether it is the understanding of Nirvana in the East or a soteriological path in the West. Only in our modern period do we depart from this once shared path. We find ourselves, rather abruptly, in a world that has no exclusive and inherent meaning. Meaningfulness has become, for us, a history rather than a destiny, an act rather than a fate. Enter subjective intent and unknowing intentionality. These two ‘events’ characterize human interaction with the world as well as underpin a new experience of time; the ‘flux’: “We can only say that this flux is something that we name in conformity with what is constituted, but it is nothing temporally ‘Objective’. It is absolute subjectivity and has the absolute properties of something to be denoted metaphorically as ‘flux’, as a point of actuality, primal source-point, that from which springs the ‘now’…” (Husserl 1964:100 [1928]). This ‘actuality’ also includes resonances of what is now past, from the just now past to the remote primordiality of consciousness, which Husserl immediately refers to as ‘a continuity of moments of reverberation’ (ibid). Then, as if to sunder any connection with any previous Logos, he declares, ‘for all this, names are lacking’.

            Heidegger, who is the original editor of these lectures, reminds the reader in 1928 that intentionality designates a ‘problem’, not an explanation. It is a problem in the same way as history is a problem, or at least, our experience thereof. By far the majority of what occurs is not at all noteworthy, and much of the noted is itself base, emanating from the ‘cloacal vaults’ which Lingis comments upon with regard to the possessive character of a psychoanalysis and a phenomenology too closely imbedded in one another. This is the content of the ‘anals’ of history, the subterranean excrementa that is certainly worthy of new life and indeed, could foster it in the same way any fertilizer would. Similarly, intentionality has within it a majority of either otiose or downright obtuse intents. This is so precisely because it has been transfigured as unknowing. We do not expect any deity to have this base layer within the kerygma of knowing intentionality. Yes, there are trickster gods, but these gods know that they dissimulate, and so the point stands. Human beings, rather, and as often as not, do not appear to know what they’re doing to this regard. It is one thing to calculate a deception, but it is a greater feat not to be yourself taken in by it.

            This novel immanence that brings Dasein into radical sensory contact with subjectivity, while at the same time not forcing only this definition upon it, lacks prescience even though it is characterized as being essentially ‘ahead of itself’. Yet all is hardly lost: our very analytic of consciousness is based upon how we presume any God to have been operating, or more mutely, be operating yet. This is the sense of the fullness of Being-now. Husserl uses the phrases ‘all-together’, and ‘all-at-once’, and this presents to us the nowness of consciousness. Indeed, each of us must designate a degree of autism to this regard, for not ‘all’ which occurs to our senses can be processed ‘all at once’. Bleuler’s interest in coining this today too-fashionable term concerns the radically inward reorientation of consciousness. Minkowski cites Bleuler as defining autism as ‘the detachment from reality accompanied by a relative or absolute predominance of the interior life.’ (1970:74 [1933]). Though originally of great interest in the study of schizophrenia, Minkowski states that as a ‘principle of life’, schizoidism cannot be reduced to purely autistic reactions to the world or to the environment surrounding the subject. No, it is rather a secondary phenomenological feature of all subjectivity that we must sift the inputs since we cannot know ahead of time what will be of greatest import. Beyond this, the value we place on this or that will change over time, as our situation is altered by acts in the ‘now’ and also by histories in what is now the ‘then’. The contrast between lived time and historical time is, in part, built along the phenomenological experience of them both, ‘at once’, and also, as separated from one another by both the fact that most of history is, and never was, ‘personally’ available to us as fully present beings – we live as a biography, not as a society, for instance; we possess a memory, not a history – as well as the sense that we ourselves can never be fully present for most of the experiences through which we do live. The usual suspects are trotted out, in no nonchalant manner, to assuage the growing suspicion that unknowing intentionality is somehow impotent, mute, and forever ignorant of itself. Sexual union, the encounter with art, the cheating of death, the giving of new life and like events certainly appear to be moments where we are most present, even to the point of our subjectivity breaking down and a genuinely shared experience occurring. And even if this is not quite the case for some of us, it does remain clear enough that autism prevents these kinds of human experiences rather than presses forward into them. Bleuler again, speaking of ‘advanced’ schizophrenics: “They are enclosed, so to speak, with their desires, which they imagine are achieved, or with their suffering, resulting from the persecutions of which they believe themselves to be victims.” (in op. cit:279). This could well be taken as an ethnographic description of any culture whose world-system never attains the wider hold of a cross-cultural franchise. The Hebrews found themselves in this perilous and fragile condition, squeezed between two great empires, Egypt and Babylonia. Today, a diaspora that observes, with some irony and even astonishment, the remains of its own ethics taken up and transformed to be more relevant to society as we know it, by two world religions.

            Cultural autism is a function of marginalization. It too shows its majority case to be something for the ethnographic ‘anals’ this time, and we, shamefully, treat these margins as at best, our own excrementalities. The exegetical meaning of maintaining such sub-cultures, even those with vast reserves of patent cultural value, such as ‘The Jews’ possess, speaks of the clique of youths who allow an eleventh wheel to ‘hang about’ more as a butt than a member. Young women are especially notorious for this – the well-known film ‘Heathers’ explores this psychology – and this is a function through which the dominant culture can assuage its own bad conscience for wielding this dominance against all others and ‘all at once’ at that. If the pariah group knows only about itself, the empire knows only everything else. Thus the one perspective that could resolve the projective overtaking of Being as world by a culture too possessed of its own Babelian destiny is missing, while the ability to communicate this perspective held within the margins is precisely unavailable to them.

            What we can take from this historical outcome is a way in which we can begin to explore the relationship between a concept of immanential structure that contains no past as certain and no future as predictable and intentionality. In this, immanence does differ strongly from the day to day experience of lived time and thus could appear to have retained its irruptive character. This is mostly incorrect, however, as the source of the irruptive quality in human experience can no longer be said to emanate from a transcendental point of knowing intentionality, as we have seen. The weight of responsibility that has fallen upon our shared shoulders at the same time does contain both the advantage of not ‘working to spec’ in any metaphysical manner as well as not having to bear any stigmata for failing to measure up to any non-human ethic or position in History as an autographed copy of a yet more distant and unknowable Being.

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

Rendering Unto Caesar’s Palace

                                            Rendering Unto Caesar’s Palace

            Exegesis presents the reader with a fundamental problem in adjudicating between Phronesis and authority. At once there is the question of source, which is a modern question, and one that only became an issue in the eighteenth century. It is not surprising that the question revolving around the existence of the divine is said to be an ‘eighteenth century question.’ Only in Monty Python and in certain parochial college campuses would one ever find today a ‘debate’ with such a question at stake. At the same time, God’s death does not immediately or necessarily imply that God is now also non-existent. This is an imputation culled from our own mortal life and thus there is no basis to infer that what apparently happens to us has also befallen a deity. Further, just because one god is dead does not mean that all are, or perhaps the transcendental Being is in fact no more but Its emissaries live on in some manner befitting to their status as successors. For the evangelical, for instance, one might assuage but perhaps also caution, by declaring that though God is dead, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is.

            The interpretation of text used to be understood as wholly a problem concerning scripture, but Ast and Schleiermacher, in the 1820s, generalized both exegetical and thence also eschatological work to include all texts, ancient and modern, sourced in every discourse and thus courageously following through on Kant’s refusal to stop writing about religion, as the Prussian state had demanded he do about a generation earlier. All of us are indebted to these three thinkers specifically upon this issue which is, at its heart, an issue of ethics. ‘Practical wisdom’, Aristotle’s ‘Phronesis’, is a working conception that includes the dialogue between interpretation and sense, both ‘common’ and scientific. What passed for science in the Hellenistic period was longer on empiricism than it was on rationalism, but it was a start. For the eighteenth century, vaulted into a new worldview thanks in part to the new sciences, from Galileo to Vico and onward, the career of interpretation was in some sense predestined to generalize itself, for who in their dignified and modern mind would care to admit, and thence to submit, only scripture to such a crucial process? Even in our own day, wherein print books are on the wane, one has to go a long way to encounter a household wherein only the Bible is present.

            This said, one does not have to travel near as far to encounter a living human being whose sense of eminent and ultimate authority adheres to this or that holy book, whatever the credo involved. This, for me, is more a disconnect at the level of literacy than anything else. As such, it is not as serious a problem as it might at first appear. If the vast majority of interpretation occurs at the level of highly scripted popular culture and that in a very few genres of textuality – in fiction, crime or mystery, romance, fantasy-adventure; in non-fiction, popular economics and commerce, gardening, cooking; and finally, biography or memoir as an uneasy amalgam of the two – scripture takes on a more predominant role than it otherwise would. Given the beauty of its prose and the compelling character of its narratives, from the Gospels to the Upanishads and back again, such texts present to us not only world-systems and choate beliefs which hang together as long as their basic premises are accepted without too much skeptical scrutiny, but as well, a sense that something more noble is possible for human culture, it is easy to understand why they remain of interest to many. If all there were to textual life was a choice between Hollywood and the Gospels, Bollywood and the Bhagavad Gita, I myself would choose the sacred route every time.

            But in fact this is a false dichotomy. And the fault lies not with either the producers of low culture in each social reality, whether America or India or elsewhere or the odd theologian who hopes to keep the ‘higher’ culture relevant, but rather within the systems of education that are supposed to provide a third eye, a third way, that threads the narrow needle between Hexis and Praxis, the other members of the Aristotelian trinity of ‘outlooks’ or ways of encountering the world. Regrettably, even the universities treat their knowledge as a mere extension of the Praxis outlined in the school system, rather than what it actually is: a radically different way of understanding that leads to practical wisdom. These three terms exist in a dialectical relationship with one another. Hexis, or custom, is the thesis. It is what is common to all members hailing from a specific culture and time period. Though this was more true in 1945 than perhaps it is today, Schutz was nevertheless near the mark when he commented that if one was living in a native English speaking country, one would be at a tremendous disadvantage if one was not ‘osmotically’ familiar with both the Bible and Shakespeare, if only through epigrams and ‘sound bites’. Even if the source of custom includes actual texts, these sensibilities have percolated into commonplace consciousness in a serious enough manner to have become one with it. Post-secondary education, especially in the liberal arts, is supposed to provide more than what a mere technical education is responsible for; more than a specialized Praxis, the antithesis. Increasingly, the entirety of the education system is geared into providing for young people only technique, and indeed, it was one of the variables that pushed me to leave the university behind. Concurrent with market pressures and the sense that one must work to live – ironically, a scriptural sentiment – students flock to these technical programs on the promise of a job, any job. The combination of the forces of globalization only make this mood more desperate. To be young today is to face a dangerous series of tests to this regard, without respect to the stressors that face any youth simply because of the life phase they are in. To this end, Phronesis is the ethical sublation of custom and practical theory. It takes from them the knowing of both and translates, uplifts, and transcends their respective limitations. It is the ‘sign’ which has been constructed out of, but also transfigured from, the signified of Hexis and the signifier of Praxis. Without the dialectic, the only signage available to us as interpreters of the world is that of Caesar and his palace on the one hand, and the prophet and his temple on the other. They are antinomous by nature, and cannot be reconciled let alone transfigured and put to creative use without the hermeneutics of generalized exegetical work.

            Increasingly the difference between a school and a storefront is more difficult to discern. Perhaps a circle is closing in upon itself, as at first, the difference between a school and a temple was almost nil. The university is, in its origins, a child of the monastery and not the laboratory, which hardly existed, even though Mantua, Padua, and a little later, Cambridge and Oxford, were early on often centered around medical discourse. Even today, with a view to earning money beyond tuition, certain universities require their first year students to live on campus in dormitories, as if this were akin to a normal school from the Victorian era. The palace and the temple thus reassert themselves at the expense of the lab and the library. Each school maintains ‘codes’ of conduct for its students, which are supposedly only based on the wider legal system and civil behavior, but can be traced back into the murkier sign systems of both religion and capital alike. Our contemporary king is the king of diamonds, even if Phronesis still tells us that the elemental human condition is a dialogue between love and death, hearts and spades, and the wisdom that is at our disposal to adjudicate between them may be found under the rubric of the King of clubs, or knowledge. To abandon this exegetical work – its sacred character too was generalized by modern hermeneutics – in the pursuit of praxis alone is to deny one’s human character. Rendering supplication only to the palace or only to the temple requires of us not only the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, as James pointed out, but as well the resignation that the world is itself nothing more than a conflict between the material and the supposed immaterial realms.

            If there were Gods of custom, their vision encompassed each question of existence that could be imagined at the time. If there was a universal question regarding the meaningfulness of the human condition, there was a universal source from which could be understood some kind of response, if not necessarily an ultimate certainty. When the character of the conception of certainty was altered by the new sciences and the new philosophies, the new politics and the new mode of production, the authority of a new universal source of meaning did not follow along. We remain perplexed by this lacunae, which is something of an unexpected tear in fabric of the soul of humankind. We stare down at ourselves, noting this deep textile fluttering with each breath. It makes us blink, but raising our heads once again, we begin to understand that it is this very injury that has brought the world into a much more focused light. Though we must resist projecting our own distress into and onto the world at large, we also have an opportunity to empathize, not only with another like myself, oneself as another, but also with a cosmos, oddly familiar to us, that orders itself out of the happenstance of a disheveled deity and a half-knowing wisdom alike.

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