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.

The Higher Infidelity

                                                The Higher Infidelity

          Can’t you go to bed with a woman without loving her, and can’t you love her without going to bed with her?- de Sade

            Two areas of contemporary gender equality are of immediate interest in the history of sexuality; infidelity and voyeurism, the first measured in intimate disloyalty in both formalized and informal conjugal relations and the latter observed with regard to the consumption of erotica. These suggestive scenes point us in the direction of imagining that the politics of the body have been somehow separated from that of the State or corporation. This specific disconnect was certainly well-practiced by the church, but during this pre-modern period the schism between the dominant sexes was shot through the entirety of society. Now, and for the first time since mechanical social organization where all was apparently equal in its inequality, we see a diversity of equalities and inequalities. Why should this be, in our own time, the case?

            In ‘The Higher Immorality’, C. Wright Mills reminds us that while noble ideals can summon ignoble efforts in the hopes of achieving them, it is also true that these dubious means can themselves attain a more highly valued approximation to the ideals to which they supposedly would lead. This gentrified baseness is operative not only in the State and its functionaries, but also in individuals. Previously, the ‘martinet’, the one who aped the emperor in a style hyperbolic in order to assuage any misgivings others might have about his loyalty, was the sole vehicle for the sense that baseness could cover itself over in nobility. But it was well known both by the martinet – whose political ancestor might well have been the court jester; both are, to once again use Mills’ vocabulary, ‘inside dopesters’ – and by everyone else that this was only a masquerade become a charade. Today, however, there are true believers in this new livery; one need only recall Oliver North to mind.

            While sociology is not itself caught in a bind of its own creation, any observant human being may well imagine that she now is, precisely due to the problem of self-fulfilling prophecy, much analyzed by Robert Merton and others. For on the one side, we have actual people sincerely believing in the fascism of political  or State loyalty, and on the other we have Thomas’ proverbial sensibility that ‘if you believe something to be real, it is real in its consequences’. Therefore it is to political reality that such an analysis might at first cleave. Yet almost everyone remains aware that politics is at best, a performance containing ulterior motives, some of which may be publicly known, others of which may be discernable in policy statements, and yet others occluded in personal networks or even childhood friendships, each exerting its own brand of loyalty. But the reality of politics is too transparent, even so, to be a radical enough ground into which an analytic may place itself and thence become a fertile engine for social change.

            Instead, it can be taken as a sign of sexual politics and the more literally interpreted ‘body politic’ that women and men share both a patent disdain for one another as well as find that betraying one another on an equal basis makes them more equal. Is this too a delusion? Mills’, in his review of de Beauvoir’s great work, The Second Sex, summarizes a crucial point she makes about the institution of marriage and also its sabotage. As de Beauvoir writes, marriage as a ‘career’ for women must be prohibited. Instead, sex and love should be candidly separated and distinguished along the lines of a partnership and a liaison: “Sexual episodes do not prevent either partner from leading a joint life of amity with the other; adultery would lose its ugly character when based on liberty and sincerity rather than, as at present, on caution and hypocrisy.” (1963:342). Yes, young women in particular are yet portrayed as ‘darling little slaves’, but not always. 2021 is not 1961 in many ways, though it may be astonishing for some that much if not most of the world’s population vehemently prefer women to be only servants.

            What I recommend in such cases is not disloyalty to one another as human beings, but rather a higher infidelity directed at social institutions, including the formal idea of marriage, the State and in particular, its educational system – this is not to say that most current attempts to set up alternatives are based on some liberating consciousness; rather quite the opposite – as well as party politics and political machines, state sponsored media corporations and further, the sense that one is a ‘fan’ of anything too particular at all, including specific sports teams or entertainers. Fine to love soccer and metal, not so fine to zero in on singular people with the effect of aggrandizing them beyond their shared humanity. No, they must rather be levelled with those who show them interest. Many celebrities are uncomfortable with their status – one only need call to mind Prince Harry to this regard – and so we should also not attempt to blame those in the limelight simply because they find themselves to be so. Like the state of governments in democracies, it is we who are responsible for the hounded harried hurry of celebrity. It is certainly correct that the stereotypical genders should be eliminated, as Mills goes on to say later in his review, and not only that of the female. Men are just as oppressed by our system of gender relations as are women. Though it is unfashionable to admit to this, it is nevertheless the case. One only need to look at the rates of male suicide to raise the bar equal to the rates of female mental illness. Men simply don’t stick around to become or remain ill, and thus provide a grim recompense for public health care.

            This said, it remains a deeper understanding that infidelity directed at one’s own selfhood is by far the greatest danger. The sources of auto-disloyalty are many and various. Given that sexuality is in the process of being equalized, at first on a covert or semi-covert level, as we have seen from the examples of ‘cheating’ and pornography consumption, we should take a look at how these two scenes are first constructed. Both contain a servility and an attempt at an aesthetic. The base and noble mingle as if they were one thing. One can certainly fall in love with another and betray one’s spouse. This additional love may be as noble as that current, or it may supplant it. The base side of the dynamic is the subterfuge, not the emotion or even the sexual act. With the sex industry proper, sleaze and usury conjoin beauty and empowerment, once again, the base and the noble. In the coming of age short story ‘Strip!’, I seek to contrast these two elements. An out-take:

            “Yes, that is it. Now just slip that dress right off, okay sweetheart?”

            “Bryce, get the fuck out of here.” This from Mitts. But Bryce, who clearly ran the operation, stared stonily back at his camera-woman. “First day, Bryce. Come back tomorrow.” Now the middle-aged man moved off, nodding his acquiescence but not without a grin. Mitts groaned and stopped her production entirely until the uninvited third wheel rolled his half-flattened self back out the door.

                “Just take it right off then?” Virginia asked. Mitts had to strain to hear her.

                “Look, whenever you’re ready. Keep the heels on for now. But I do need to see you naked at some point, okay? For now, ease into it.” Okay, I knew it. I fucking just knew it. Fine. I’m not a child. I know I’m hot. Everything and everyone everyday tells me so. This is no different. No, it is different. It’s better. Better by far. I’m getting paid now. People want to look, then they pay. That’s the way it should be. My gods those volleyball shorts. Huh. Okay, I’m not a prude. Mom and dad, huh, after attending the first game I ever played, back in grade eight. Even then. They had to say it. I could tell in the car ride home they weren’t happy about something or other. Well, my team won, so what the fuck was it? No, it was our athletic gear that had geared them up. But Mom was nice. If I recall correctly she said something like, ‘So, honey, are you comfortable wearing your team uniform as it is?’ That was rich. Team ‘uniform’. Come off it mom. But at that juncture I simply said, ‘for sure’. Later, when I was older and bolder, I said, apropos of nothing after a game, something more like ‘this gear fits like a glove. Don’t even know I’m wearing anything. How about that, dad?’ I like to tease him, for obvious reasons. He can’t answer back. He can’t do anything at all.

                “Okay, yes, so I figured. Brilliant. Let’s go through the entire series of poses again, and I’ll call them off just like we’re doing a square dance call, hey?” Good, I’ve got this. I hate heels though. I want them off already. I could never ever be wait-staff. Almost every other girl on both the volleyball and basketball teams was a waitress. Hmm, they don’t even use that word any more. Okay, sure, keep it coming. I’ve got this. Fuck me it’s a fucking work-out, actually. Hah! “Beautiful.” Mitts concluded before coming up for air from behind her camera.

                That one word. That’s what I live for now. Maybe I’ll die for it too, but I’m eighteen now, an adult. I need to at least act like one even if I can’t immediately actually be one. How many times have my teachers and even mom and dad said the same words to me. The very same. Act your age, for goodness sakes. No threat of punishment of course. I love my folks for that alone. Nothing like that in our schools at least either. All good. But the way they still speak to you; adults, I mean. Surely these older people can’t quite be ‘adults’ either, in the same way that I’m not quite one. No, they’re not. They’re actually only like us, just bigger and sometimes smarter. And they use both of those advantages against us, at least, a lot of the time. Here, I’m in control. Okay, this is the moment, I can feel it. I’m ready though, for sure I’m ready to get these gosh-darn shoes off. Like they’re meant for a ballet practice!

                “Just go with that now. Not the whole thing quite yet. Let’s do some yoga. Anything you want. Anything. Okay, breathe. Hold it in. Release. Now: its just you, okay? You in thin denier tights. Everything about you is beautiful. The sun wants to know you, and the moon tells its secrets to you. The bedding braces itself for your embrace. The linen longs to robe you in its folded fearlessness. The hands of time desire to caress you, to take your youth and make Time itself stop. That’s what you’re doing right now, beautiful Ginny; I can no longer feel my heartbeat for it has flown on wings of joyful wisdom and arcs over your youthful breast.” Holy gods. I have never heard anyone speak like that to me. It fills me with desire. I’m actually getting seriously aroused doing all this. If that sleaze-ball Bryce walked in on me now I wouldn’t even notice him. I can’t hear the camera clicking and whirring. I can’t see Mitts. All I feel is a lightness, a denial of gravity, as if I had stayed in dance, which would have been past a joke.

                Now it’s gone. Huh. Wipe your eyes, you big baby. You’re such a pussy. Such a coward. Grow up, you. No wonder you’re so worried about graduation and what comes next. Moving out? Fat chance. You couldn’t survive a week on your own. College? Well, my grades are awesome so college can go fuck itself. No, its not the world that’s scary, it’s you who are scared. Just plain scared.

                “Hold that!” All the surf of sounds then washed over Virginia, as if she were nothing more than a grain of sand, but also nothing less than an entire beach. Back and forth, from large to small, from universe to bedroom, from game to shower, from object to subject, objecting to both and yet subjected to both. Subjecting herself to both? Is that what adults do then, in the world? Do they really choose their fates? Eighteen and a model. Still in school and a nude model. Now that’s fun to think about, that is. Okay, let’s think about that and that alone. …

            The traditional separation of sex and love, beauty and shill, subject and object, have been collapsed in the arenas of social life wherein the genders have sought to collapse themselves. This quest is itself noble, but our means for doing so are, thus far, not so much. Instead, within a dialectical dynamic there exists the freedom to bracket both these oppositions and transcend them. If we are disloyal to the other in our vainglorious and yet life-willing guerrilla attempts at liberations, if we are disloyal to ourselves in allowing others to prevaricate their own freedoms at our expense, then we can yet commend to ourselves the higher infidelity of a space which does not admit to either man or woman. Case in point, Marx’s ‘atheism’ has been misinterpreted as a disbelief in a god. No, for Marx, in communist society, the question of God cannot arise at all. Since we have been able to imagine such a freedom as this, one cast in the direction of metaphysics no less, surely it would be no such feat to imagine a social world where the questions of marriage, family, the State, subjection and objectification, exploitation and yet ‘beauty’, and even gender itself could never themselves arise.

            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.

On the Fear of ‘Death-in-itself’

On the Fear of ‘Death-in-itself’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris Hilton; My Heroine

Paris Hilton; My Heroine

            In the politically conservative state of Utah this week, a major decision in the legal realm has paved the way for a far greater oversight of institutions catering to ‘troubled teens’. These sites are the contemporary guise of the now defunct asylum system, and one can hope that they will eventually suffer the same demise. The Utah ruling opens up a transformation to this regard across the United States, and the celebrity Ms. Hilton’s testimony was crucial in pushing it forward. A true heroine, Ms. Hilton suffered sundry abuse at one of these institutions, to which she was sent by her parents at age seventeen to ostensibly curb her ‘incessant partying’.

            This is the key trope in yet another front within the wider ambit of the ineptly named ‘culture wars’. There is, in fact, nothing cultural about this conflict. It is a war against fascism, pure and simple, the same war that was waged against the Reich. Though at base a female-perspective riff on Robert Heinlein’s novella ‘If this goes on…’, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale should be enough for those who lack imagination to picture the society the so-called ‘Christian’ right desires to suffer upon the rest of us. They want to turn the entire world into an institution for ‘troubled’ youth. Never mind that their version of Christianity is a fraud, cooked up by the second Great Awakening Barnums and Baileys of the day. Never mind that in wider US law children and youth are not considered to be worthy of many human rights including the right not to be physically assaulted by their parents and yet in nineteen states, their teachers as well. Never mind that such wider laws are mostly unquestioned and that eighty percent of Americans still use physical coercion in child raising. Ms. Hilton’s victory remains a victory.

            Not only is it admirable by way of the courage it must have taken for her to speak out publicly about the intimate abuse she suffered while in ‘care’, iterated by many others who were sent involuntarily to this same institution, but it is also of the utmost that lawmakers were so moved by this courage – shown both by her teenage self in actually undergoing and enduring such abuse as well as her adult self in being able to narrate it and thus expose this loathsome criminality – to take necessary action. The next step would be to shut these places down in their entirety.

            When I was a professor in the USA for six years, I co-founded and then led the community service learning programs at two universities. A number of rehabilitation sites for youth were on my list of placements for my students. I accepted their applications after having studied their practices with all due rigor. The narratives my students later related to myself and their peers were grim, but these sites took in court referenced youth who had been found guilty of sexual assault, common assault, and other forms of juvenile mayhem that were actually against the law and did in fact endanger others. Not one of the inmates of these facilities had been forced by non-legal entities into incarceration, unlike Ms. Hilton. Now this is not to say that my experiential learning sites were above reproach. The methods of restraining violent youth were themselves violent, but rather of necessity, however regrettably. Pharmaceuticals were proscribed and administered to persons as young as ten for violence and even to quell libidinal drives. Indeed, many of the abuses that Ms. Hilton reports being a daily fetish in the non-court ordered sites were practiced as therapeutic interventions in the ones that contained court-ordered youth.

            But therein lies the precise difference between such facilities. In the service learning sites within my ken, health professionals and judges were the sources of both placement and treatment. In the types of sites that the new Utah legal oversights will adjudicate, parents, pastors, teachers and other very dubious and non-professional authorities are the sources of the reference, placement, and ‘treatment’ once placed. And it is this line, between that of the discursively and legally responsible professional and the mere moralist, the line that turns lawful incarceration into abduction and forcible confinement, the line that turns treatment into abuse, that must not be crossed.

            In volume three of my adventure trilogy, ‘Queen of Hearts’, Melissa Daniels, Guinevere’s contemporary sister, reflects on how their parents had regularly threatened to send her herself to one of these camps for ‘troubled teens’, and how many of those that were sent to them were once wards of the state:

            “All that horseshit about magical swords and their relationship to their wielders tired me out. I felt the same way about animals, come to think of it. Equine therapy? That was one of the patent things those fucking evangelicals had set up for girls like me. Advertising how many of their wards – signed over by their parents sometimes for years at a time, including authority to discipline ‘if needed’ – had been adopted. They were in the business of saving souls, bless them; those of ‘wayward’ girls, girls with addictions, ‘attitude’ problems, ‘troubled teens’, now that was a favorite phrase. Fuck them all. And I will. [ ] We’ve already started. What we really needed to do, if we were to face a holy army of self-righteous regressives, was to raise an unholy one in return. Free all those so-called wayward girls and have them join with us. Get them back to their violent roots. Yes, freedom. Saving souls my fucking ass. All they were doing was taking opportunistic advantage to manipulate lost souls into their ever-bleeding franchise. It was simple demographics, thence simple politics. They could never get their regressive agenda tabled fully because there simply weren’t enough of them to do it. Compensate the loss of girls like me, well, boys too, by co-opting once wards of the state into their wider coven. Counsel them, pray with them, play with horses with them, swim and work-out and even paddle them when necessary. Wouldn’t you know it, I had been this close to having been sent to one of those ‘schools’ myself. Gwynne had herself never been threatened with it, but I had, once a month, for a couple of years. As soon as I had turned twelve, which was apparently the starting age these places accepted, mom and dad had showed me their websites. The girls all smiles, of course. Horses? Not my thing.”

            This character no doubt has an axe to grind, given her own personal upbringing, but in essence her argument is correct. Placement sites for non-court ordered youth are like concentration camps with the goal of conversion and recruitment for the war latter day fascists desire to wage upon the rest of us. Though it would be a waste of infrastructure, I am tempted to borrow a phrase from the Reich myself, and suggest that this network of schools, camps, and other facilities simply be ‘levelled with the earth’, just as has been done with the vast majority of the now defunct asylum system.

            I once had a lengthy sit on the tarmac at the Minneapolis International Airport. To my right, just off the ever expanding system of runways and service roads, was a cluster of Victorian buildings, standing starkly against the staring moonlight. It was a long abandoned Sanatorium, lower floors bricked in or covered over with aging plywood, the upper floor windows’ plate glass sometimes shattered by the intrepid vandal, the remaining sockets looking an abject absurdity that had transformed the once private madness of a lost soul into the unreason of an entire discourse. The irony of allying oneself with the history of psychopathology in order to hopefully defeat a yet more evil outlook does not escape us. Even so, as with Tuberculosis, Hysteria, Cancer and AIDS, the movement from morals to science is crucial. Without it, the abuses endured by Ms. Hilton and hundreds of thousands like her will only continue apace. I agree that teens need to spend less time partying, but not for the reasons the fascists intend. No, rather youth need to recruit themselves into a war against those very forces which threaten all of our present freedoms and more ominously, all of those freedoms that yet may come.

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

Some Overlooked Genres of Domestic Terrorism

Some Overlooked Genres of Domestic Terrorism

            The trinity of revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century produced much to which we are in debt. Modern democracy, the triumph of reason, mass production are, in a word, the summa of the fruits of this still recent period of human consciousness. Each has its flaws, but it is overdone to simply restate that industry is destroying the planet, that enfranchisement has its disappointing limits, that some dreams of reason indeed produce monsters.

            Yet it is the very insidiousness of such dreams that is their true terror. They overlay our society and ourselves, and thus they are most often overlooked. This isn’t a blame game, for no single person is responsible. But there are those who, upon finding themselves in groups of apparently like-minded others, fall for their weakest aspects of their specific characters, just as we as a society might do in times of wider crisis.

            The pedigree of ‘concerned citizenry’ dates back to the confluence of the bourgeois coming of age, the 1820s and 1830s. This is the world of Jane Austen, of George Elliot, of Stendhal and for that matter, of Schubert. But great art has a way of hovering above the push and pull of daily life, even if, in all of its radical presence – witness for instance Muller’s famous line from Schubert’s Winterreise; ‘If there are no gods upon the earth, then we ourselves are gods’ – it subverts and overcomes the norms and forms of staid civility and ‘proper behavior’. To one’s sense is another’s sensibility, perhaps. Even so, the efflorescence of a new kind of outlook was on the make, that of the emerging middle classes. It is sage to note that even at the height of this class’s self-consciousness, say the Ward Cleaver  tinged c. 1960 or so, only about 60% of American families conformed to the ‘nuclear’ ideal, an apropos adjective, given this other steadily enlarging skeleton in the post-war closet.

            Not long after the institution of mass public liberal arts schooling for merchant-class children, coming in part due to the efforts of the first incarnation of ‘bored housewives’ sans internet, the separation of the mentally ill, the criminally insane, and the plain criminal by Pinel, and the inaugural feminism of Harriet Martineau, close friend and intellectual comrade of John Stuart Mill, there appeared the ‘child saving movement’. From factory to school, it represented, at base, a delay in the death sentence of wage slavery. Yet it was also the beginning of the idea that children were not mere chattel. From this point we have, more or less in historical succession, the temperance movement, the suffragettes, the fight against polio etc., including the ‘march of dimes’, and on into our own time. These latter-day saints shall go unnamed here, for wariness of their possible litigiousness, latent or blatant.

            Prudence aside, it is rather a kind of possessive prudishness coupled, to use a word advisedly, with a dark desire to express sexual predation upon young people that drives much of contemporary, if overlooked, domestic terrorism. These are grass-roots movements – though some may be in receipt of public funding, shame on us – and thus differ from the sources which spawn events such as sending young people home to change clothes because their apparel was too titillating for school staff members and administrators to control their own longings. The public castigation of youth in this way is a distended and indirect form of surrogate rape; young women are the ‘special victims’ of these assaults. Perhaps the script-writers of CSI might look into these acts if only for a fresh episode. No, these grass-roots groups are not functionaries of State terrorism, as are the schools, but rather have their own agenda, which often seeks to contravene the law as it is, once again, especially in relation to youth. ‘Parents’ rights’ or ‘parental advocacy’ groups are part of this ilk, as are groups claiming they act for the ‘protection’ of children. NGO’s that are currently seeking to ban various forms of pornography fit this bill to a tee, whether or not their motivation is directly ‘religious’. More than attempting to control the freedom of youth, they ultimately seek a wider control over the freedom of all.

            But these are not the only overlooked terrorists on the domestic front. We also read of yet another Olympic gymnastics coach accused of much more direct sexual assault, who promptly committed suicide when he was exposed. The easy way out, or perhaps he realized that any penalty the State might render would be too good for the likes of him. We are inclined to agree if the latter was the actual case. This is another pattern; adults who desire to work intimately with youth might well be suspect. Thus coaching and sports organizations fall also under this subcutaneous rubric of potential terrorist threats. After all, part of the very definition of terrorism includes the intent to provoke fear and cause injury or even death to regular persons somehow associated with the ideals this or that group wishes to destroy. Young people’s psyches are destroyed by such coaches, sports parents, media – both public and private – which ‘celebrates’ the accomplishments of young athletes with little enough attention paid to how they became so skilled at their respective games.

            But by far the social institution that is responsible for the most per capita acts of domestic terrorism is the family itself. Ninety-five percent of child abuse of all types occurs within its bounds. This normative scene of violence is only heightened, worsened, during a health crisis that forces family members in too close quarters for lengthy amounts of time. This statistic alone puts to rest the incessant decoy of parental groups who, aside from expressing their own desires to control youth, need to provide both cover for and distraction against their ongoing prevarications of the general condition of almost all youth. Counseling programs and social work degrees that focus their curricula on ‘family-based’ solutions are also thus missing the mark, both empirically and ethically, and could be included on the terrorist list.

            So, just for the sake of expositional organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, what then do we have?

            1. Parent’s groups: whether shilling for greater ‘rights’, advocating for more influence in the schools – surely the most proverbial Canadian case centered round the farcical revolving door of the Abbotsford school board the 1980s and 1990s, where the province periodically fired it only to have it re-elected – or seeking to ‘protect’ children from everyone else but the most statistically real villains, parents groups retain the air of bourgeois hypocrisy better than any other genre of domestic terrorist.

            2. Training organizations for youth coaching and sports, including those more informally associated with churches: A combination of the will to exert a fascist control over young people – how many times have I witnessed, even on a casual walk with my wife, some coach or official yelling at a young person, right up in their face, using a physically threatening stance? (Let’s not even speak of the parents on the sidelines) – and a patent voyeurism, given the scanty athletic gear for youth in most sports, these ‘adults’ are somewhere down the same road as the now notorious Olympic gymnastics coaches. The fetish surrounding ‘organized sports’ being somehow ‘character building’ for kids is utter nonsense. What they actually teach is competition, the disdain for the weakest link, and that bullying can be internalized and turned against your opponents. Here’s some simple advice to those with an inclination to coach youth sports; find something better to do, if you can.

            3. The family: It has been two centuries of this much vaunted and now nostalgia driven NGO and it is high time it was consigned to the dustbin of a history which aborted itself at the very moment its dreams might have risen above its monsters. I’m open to discuss novel options.

            No doubt this list could be extended to include Norman Rockwellian scout leaders and volunteers and ‘ gender conversion therapists’- those latter’s activities soon to be banned in Canada – but aside from that, when it comes to thinking about domestic terrorism, the usual suspects of ‘Alt-right’, Neo-Nazism et al, or the yet more rare ‘revolutionary’ groups whose heyday was the 1970s, just doesn’t cut it either in terms of actual influence or sheer numbers of persons involved. No, rather the groups and institutions listed here are far more dangerous, act to act, event to event, than anything some utterly marginal ‘ideological’ group could ever muster. The grass-roots terrorists adorn themselves with a rhetoric designed to appeal to all of us who actually practice all the things we are not supposed to practice, including in Canada, what can be called Section 43 violations. They have widespread political support, simply because it is in the character of politics to be cowardly in the face of the mob. They align themselves with the prevailing winds of ressentiment and nostalgia alike, both hallmarks of a fraudulent anxiety that seeks to assuage our deeper misgivings about how we yet provide for our children, such as we may do, on the backs of all those who cannot do the same. It is one thing to sheepishly go about one’s business and work for a better world for all, but to take the penumbra of our desires for control and lust and dress them up in the wooly-eyed vestments of both vanity and vindictiveness places us beyond redemption.

            If it is the case that human reason does sometimes produce not so much monsters per se but rather monstrosities and perhaps, pace Muller, yet monstrous gods, this is not the whole story. Democracy was strengthened by the first feminist groups, children were placed on the long road to attaining fully human rights – though very few nations have yet reached this ideal – drug and alcohol abuse eventually became a topic of health discourse rather than of that moral, and various diseases were overcome. Even so, we must ask after the costs of these changes, for no ‘good in itself’ can function as a social good without addressing the entirety of each historical process. There are events which are evil in principle – the residential schools, for instance – and knowing this, we tend to desire to balance such a reality with the idea that there must also be things which are in principle nothing but good. This is, for the greatest part, simply not so. Coming to terms with this social fact, confronting those who maintain and promote underhanded desires flanked by a masked militia of neo-fascist domestic euphemisms – ‘protection’, ‘discipline’, ‘teamwork’, ‘character’, ‘family values’, etc. – and fighting back against the too-soothing directives of these NGO’s and others will in fact make our society more democratic, by way of extending an holistic human freedom to its most vulnerable members.

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

On the Act of Understanding the Other

On the Act of Understanding the Other

            “…we must remember this, that the art of understanding adversaries is an innovation of the present century, characteristic of the historic age. Formerly, a man was exhausted by the effort of making out his own meaning, with the help of his friends. The definition and comparison of systems which occupies so much of our recent literature was unknown, and everybody who was wrong was supposed to be very wrong indeed.” (Dahlberg-Acton 1906:202 [1895]).

                The great challenge of our own age, that which imagines itself as verging upon post-historical, remains an historical challenge. The shock of the other, her very existence, both promotes this challenge into an orbit that appears dauntingly distant, but also demotes the value of taking up this challenge as something unworthy of our collective efforts. For the other is at first no friend. And yet the stakes could not be higher. Even in Lord Acton’s period, which is still very much our own as modulated from imperial colonialism to economic neo-colonialism, from biopower presumed to biopower desired, from sex to gender, from race to ethnicity, from labor-based classes to those status-based and so on, people were well aware of the historical cost, not so much of misunderstanding, but of deliberate disagreement for the sake of political opportunism and messianistic adoration. Like moving to the relative minor from the nineteenth century’s dominant major key, our own time has been modulated by these structural forces so that the otherness of the other is much more apparent to us, and much more troubling. There no longer is a ‘white man’s burden’, and if anything, fashionable discourse says to us the opposite: that the white man has imposed a burden upon the world that reaches out from beyond his own recently dug grave. Yet it was this very personage who invented the concept of understanding, after many painstaking millennia. Almost all of our philosophical ideas which aid us in coming to both the understanding of the other and what is also of the utmost, one’s own self-understanding, emerge from the ethics of the West, authored and thought out loud by the best of what is often considered a bad lot.

            If this sounds apologetic in any way, it is because abandoning this discourse means that we are thrown back over into a pre-modernity that is too sure of itself; its religious beliefs, its sense of social order, its political reason, its morality. The Enlightenment, the penultimate fruit of the tree of reason that was first planted some 2.6K years ago in Greece, is the source of historical understanding and also that ethical, for it goes beyond the sense that tolerance alone is a good enough showing to otherness as a principle, just as it makes larger the compassion that was to be shown, in Christian ethics, to the other as an individual. This is one of the reasons why Acton refers to understanding the other as an ‘art’. Art simultaneously participates in the universal and the individual. It brings the cosmos to the person without presuming to personalize it. It allows the intimate to experience the infinite without aggrandizing what occurs between persons into a universal force. Similarly the art of self-understanding, which too must attain a new intimacy in the face of an overwhelming and anonymous world, let alone the incomparably larger cosmos.

            If this is an ideal, let me suggest that before one can attain art, one must task oneself with the more modest act. The act of understanding the other is a beginning, but in our own day, even this appears to be often absent. We hear popular writers speaking of ‘reaching out’ to one another, of tolerance, compassion, even acceptance, but are any of these, or can any combinations thereof, truly generate an authentic understanding of the other as a vehicle for otherness? Here, I am using the term to connote neither the untoward nor the uncanny as such. Yes, both are present in the encounter with the other insofar as the first may be the case if we fail to understand something of her – she may end up presenting a threat to our own parochialism, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – and the second occurs simply because of the shock of realizing that another human being can in fact be so different from me that I am stretched to recognize her as human. The untoward is what we seek to avoid, but the uncanny cannot be expunged. We simply have to accept this in ourselves through the other as part of the act of understanding. For otherness also resides within, from the metaphoric rhetoric of the unconscious life, to the role stress and conflict that occupies our waking hours. It is quite enough most of the time and for most of us, to nod again to Acton, to ‘make out our own meanings’, oft enough without any help at all, from either friend and certainly not from foe.

            Just so, just now, we see that friend and foe are becoming all too clear, so much so that if one is not the one, one is the other. This is the very essence of pre-modernity in all of its diverse organizational forms. From hunting and gathering, through horticulture and agrarian means of production, the stranger could not be one of us. It is a long-germinating resonance of the second Great Awakening period (c.1790-1840) in the USA that American politics – ironically heralded as the most ingenious, reasoned and liberating if experimental dynamic in world history by De Tocqueville at the very moment it was about to turn inward and fold back upon itself – has seemingly regressed into a bipolar pre-modernity; one is either friend or foe and there is nothing, and more importantly, no one, in between.

            The art of understanding is the culmination of a series of acts which direct themselves toward a sense of self-recognition, thence further, toward a more risky comprehension that the other really is her own person who is under no obligation to agree with me about anything at all. Coming to terms with the other is at first a mere political exercise, but right now we appear to be lacking even this. Such terms are necessary in order for a society to function in its basic sense. We do seem to be starting at a zero point, or rather, restarting. This is due to the fact that what were originally very small populations west of the Alleghenies – it is important to note that the first railhead through this range was only accomplished in 1857 – grew at a rate similar to their political disenfranchisement. When agriculture and ranching became themselves marginal to the emerging industrial economy, these Americans had already girded themselves with a century of ‘awakened’ ideas. If the Puritans were intolerant and neurotic, those whom they pushed westward were idealistic and victimized. This victimology, present from the moment the new republic recognized itself in a post-colonial core, urban, commercial, capitalist, and seeking its own culture, has come down to us as a wider Western culture as the song of all those who suffer from yet larger forces; chief amongst them, globalization. But while Western economies are downshifted by the intense competition afforded by yet further others – those yet more distant and far more strange than even the neighbor who votes for the other party – the deeper source of marginality is the very history of internal colonization and the sheer geography of a land unlike anything one’s ancestors could have imagined. A big land required a big god, required a big man, required a big stick. But did it require a big State, a big heart, a big purse? Perhaps in contradiction with itself, the USA got all of those aspects of largeness, amongst others. ‘Very well, I contain multitudes’, Whitman famously writes at the moment the Alleghenies were pierced by the new industry. Whitman is known as the first truly modern American artist precisely because he recognizes the other inside of himself. In our own age, and contrary to any idea that emanated from that previous, otherness is not something distant, obscure, inhuman, and necessarily defined by existential threat, of whatever nature the corresponding variables may have been in one historical context to the next. But both the language and the countenance of this Great Awakening promoted the old ideas once again to the fore. With just as great an irony, the nation that was once the radical hope of the enlightened world in two centuries would risk becoming a caricature of itself.

            This is why the act of understanding the other must come before that very other, in reaction to our malicious mocking and vindictive vitriol, makes herself into the very caricature we had all along presumed her to be. The rioters at DC were the self-fulfilling prophecy imagined by all those who had marginalized them over the decades. We tend to make our own enemies, most especially, of ourselves. This is why the act precedes the art, just as an apprenticeship comes before any supposed mastery. We are not asking each other to become such masters overnight. Rather, we are proposing the modest endeavor of authentically trying to comprehend what the other really needs, what they think of the world, who they imagine themselves to be. That this is the essence of any human relationship should not be lost on us. For the others are also married, are also working, are also trying to ‘make their own meaning’ in the face of powerfully anonymous forces which are far beyond any individual’s control. The sense that globalization is alone the wedge that drives the West apart from itself is simply another way of pushing off on a yet stranger other the responsibility for self-understanding. If my neighbor is, after all, not my enemy, then the Chinese person is, the Indian person, the Muslim. These ‘strangers at the gates’, to allude to Kipling once again, have, like the rioters, found their way into our way of life. But they are who they are, and not caricatures, not neighbors in the narrow sense. So we must extend the sense of self-understanding, and the only manner of doing so is by augmenting what was originally a religious ethics with that of post-religious thought.

            In book three of my new trilogy, the newly conjoined Queen Guinevere’s final words to the major narrative heroine, telling her at once of the state of her own lover as well as the state of our contemporary love in general, are as follows: “She is alive but you must not delay. The power she has is munificent, but the power they have is not based on one soul, however great. It is known that Dvorak said of Brahms, ‘such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes in nothing.’ Take heed of this mischance, modernity, and choose carefully your nothing.” Our conception of love, and who is worthy of it, are endangered. It is because we have severe doubts regarding our own worthiness and on both counts; are we deserving of love and our we the ones who can love? ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ always carried this deeper caveat: it assumes one can love oneself. This is the ‘as’. Then again, to imagine that only we are worthy of love, our own or that of another, is to conflate the abstract ethic with the practical act. It is to submerge a revolutionary sensibility back into a revelationary discourse. What is appropriately ‘revealed’ by relatively freeing ethics from metaphysics is not religion but rather otherness, both internal to self and external in the other to self. Loving oneself includes the task of understanding that we are not one thing, singular, stable, secure in our knowledge of the world. Our global rivals have shed their own parochiality enough to step onto the world stage. Is it either reasonable or ethical that we shrink back before their example and turn inward, replacing what they were with ourselves?

            Enjoin then the act of understanding, which discloses to one’s own being not merely the presence of the other as if she were a distraction or an annoyance, a threat mortal or otherwise, but in fact the authenticity of humanity in its diversity and in its similarity. For in the end we are both like and unlike the other. We may also like and dislike them, just as we already know that we too are likeable on one day, the other on another. Choosing carefully our unbelief includes the ability to comprehend that belief of some sort remains relevant. Even so, of whatever ethic it may promote, the otherness of the other, the difference within, must become a part thereof. The currently faithless faith in ourselves travels with us only until we reach the limen over which otherness dwells. Today, that threshold is what separates the neighbor that must be, and not the stranger that she has previously been.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty 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 two decades.

The Problem of Allegorical Distance

The Problem of Allegorical Distance

            “A pathway which is long ‘Objectively’ can be much shorter than one which is ‘Objectively’ shorter still but which is perhaps ‘hard going’ and comes before us as interminably long. Yet only in thus ‘coming before us’ is the current world authentically ready-to-hand.” (Heidegger 1962:140-1 [1927]).

One: A brief phenomenological pedigree of the concept of distance

            What ‘occurs’ to us is brought before us in the manner of an encounter. We take it to be part of the living world, just as we ourselves are taken by that world to be at least alive, sentient, somewhat conscious, perhaps also conscientious and even beholden to conscience. The ‘coming before’ does not reference history directly. What has objectively preceded us concedes nothing to our presence other than the dumb luck of happenstance. So it must think, if it is to be able to remain present without having itself such presence. Instead, this phenomenological occurrence at once occurs and is presented. The first is seemingly of its own volition, as in the unexpected or even, after some deliberation, the untoward. It stops short of the uncanny because it is not irruptive. It remains an encounter and not an outright confrontation. The second is an event that takes into account our presence and thus must realign, or even reassert itself. The new ‘presents’ itself in this second sense. It comes to be present in our own time and space, and it also performs an introduction for itself, as if it had in its possession and old-fashioned calling card, served up to us on a silver salver. Persons can of course, deliberately ‘put in an appearance’, and the more commonplace understanding of what it means to present oneself is thus called forth. Even so, we are not generally thought of as metaphors for ourselves. Nor are we mere likenesses, presenting ourselves as if we were but a simile, worse still, a facsimile, of some other and more ‘real’ being.

            Since this is mostly the case – one might suggest that we are all ‘actors of our own ideals’ in presentation perhaps more than in any other social instance; coming before another does mean some kind of adjustment in our own subjective ideals as no other person will precisely conform to our self-understanding – one aspect of the puzzle of distance in narrative as well as in living-on occurs to us precisely as does the otherness of the presentation, of selves, of events etc. At first we would balk if we were to understand ourselves as living allegories of the Dasein which we are and within which we dwell as the subjection to others, the subjectitude to the world, and more pleasantly, one would hope, the simple subjectivity of our imagination. Let us not decide prematurely that all relationships that involve some distance must necessarily be violent in this way. We too subject the next person to our presence, some more than others. We too manipulate and reconstruct the world, mainly through material technology and yet also through a more ‘symbolic’ history. Subjectitude is phenomenologically diverse if not ideally value-neutral. Subjection, a harder term that has commonplace connotations, is at least symbiotic if not particularly dignified. And apart from the Diltheyan problem of boundaries in subject-object distinctions – though our ‘much vaunted subjectivity’, to again refer to Nietzsche, may not be all that it has been cut up as being – it remains a profound ethical conception along the simple lines of being-able-to–be-with another or the others. In a word, this fragile aspect of auto-epistemology – and not ontology, to respect one key difference between Dilthey and Heidegger – allows us to maintain ourselves by maintaining our selfhood in the face of knowing that another to self has her own sense of what this must mean. This shock also ‘comes before us’ in both senses we have been touching upon. She exists already, in the world, and thus also in my world given that I too inhabit this space, and as well, she also presents herself to me as an event of ‘intersubjectivity’, an occurrence that is too personal to be overlooked as one might think about measurable distances. Here, Heidegger desires to speak about the experience of distance and not its physicality. Even when we do measure, as when comparing our speed with the mileage signs on a freeway, it still remains for us to flesh out that basic framework in terms that will be more familiar to us having undertaken to actually drive it. At first, we might consider such aspects of world such as road conditions, weather, speed limits, construction, proximity to towns, curves in the road and all of this. We then might bring forward to consciousness the amount of time we have already been driving, our relative fatigue or freshness, and whether or not we have a second driver with us. Are we under a deadline? Must we stop to refuel? Could there be an accident up ahead, or might we ourselves be prone to become involved in one? Yet further, we might then factor in more personal aspects to such a journey and its corresponding conception of distance. Is the terminus sought a desired one? What kind of welcome might we expect upon reaching it? Indeed, whether there is room at the inn or no, what others might have also arrived with whom we would generally not wish to spend time or be in proximity to?

            If, after all of these ruminations, none of which are yet phenomenological in scope, we find our right foot failing on the throttle, we will have begun to access a more potent meaning to our undertakings. We are at the threshold of asking more important questions of ourselves, ones that are ethical, even existential, in their notice. What is the merit of such a trip? This is more than asking ‘what will I get out of it?’ which is often a standard part of consideration once again, ‘coming before’ we actually set out. This ‘more’ touches upon our self-understanding in a metaphoric way. Here, we skirt the boundedness of both limits that are, or can be, placed upon human life in general – in this case, objectively, driving remains the most dangerous statistical risk with which we engage in the everyday – as well as the value we place on our own lives in particular. Indeed, the simile at work is an imagined doppelganger, a ‘stand in’ for ourselves, who undertakes the same trip in an ideal fashion and arrives just as we thought he would, on time and intact. In a well-known analysis, Schutz states that we engage in ‘projects of action’ in order to more objectively comprehend the idealized occurrence which we might plan to undertake or yet undergo. A road trip might be closer to the former, a medical operation closer to the latter, for instance. Either way, because Dasein is a being which is always ahead of itself as part of its ontological structure, I must visualize, so to speak, a future which not only does not exist but in fact will never exist. This is so because there will inevitably be some diversion from the ideal in practice. Even when a surgeon sums her work up as ‘textbook’, no two operations are exactly the same. Projects of action are, however, not decalogic in character. We always allow for some variation, insofar as we can imagine it at the time. This is the equivocal chestnut of experience, of course, and also the chief reason why young people are apt to sniff at an older person’s view of the world. On the one hand, the world has changed, so that I cannot in all certainty explain what will happen to a youth if she decides to apparently follow in what have passed for well-trodden footsteps. On the other, experience does mitigate variation, and so it is never itself completely at a loss to engage even a changing world. That one can only test the apparently wobbly balance through the undertaking itself in turn presents its own two-souled premise: one, there is the anxiety of trepidation; will I be able to complete this task within a reasonable variation from my ideals? And two, the very uncertainness regarding this question presents me with a liberating freedom of decision, improvisation, spontaneity; perhaps I will innovate and surprise even myself.

            Projection in this quasi-temporal sense is the most common manner of constructing some distance between the real me and the future of what I will become through and after the next undertaking or undergoing. It is sourced in an imagination specifically turned to the future and just as specifically tuned to my action within it. Thus phantasms, in Schutz’s language, or actionable ‘daydreams’, are the most common form of allegory. Each of us is also a ‘writer of our own ideals’ as it were. The specter of failure is always present, but we deem it far less misery to have thought things through as best we can, no matter mice nor men, and given it our best shot, than to have gone off ‘half-cocked’ and promptly made a hash of things. In the first instance, we can always ‘plan it again’, with more experience and thus hopefully more foresight. Schutz is himself keen on maintaining this distinction: though we can never ‘swim in the same river twice’ – both the river and ourselves have been altered by the more or less simple passage of time – yet we can ‘do things again’ because doing again does not mean doing over. Just as Freud poignantly notes that lost loved ones can never be replaced, he equally emphatically asserts that we can find substitutions for them, and indeed, must find such substitutions, not only to honor our love for those passed on but also to live on. Just so, living again is not living over.

            Understanding this, Dasein nevertheless finds itself already and always within its ‘primordial spatiality’. The beloved, present or absent, found or lost, past or present, remains as part of the intimitude of ‘closeness’. I here use the term ‘intimitude’ to suggest another kind of space that is the phenomenological obverse of infinitude. Heidegger himself now: “That which is presumably ‘closest’ is by no means that which is at the smallest distance ‘from us’. It lies in that which is desevered to an average extent when we reach for it, grasp it, or look at it.” (ibid:141). This aspect of worldhood is ‘severed’ from our being-in at a number of levels, including its thingness, its lack of sentience, its abruptness, its silent objection to a presence it cannot understand or undertake in any way recognizable to me, as well as its relative age – many things in the world outlast by far a human life, for example, though perhaps equally others do not – its cultural value or absence thereof, and so on. ‘Desevering’ in phenomenology includes all of these aspects of distance, resulting in a composite ‘distanciatedness’ which can be then accounted for. Along with projects of action, another quite commonplace function of the individuated imagination is the series of questions which follows from such encounters. Why was this thing built? Why does it exist, and exist here? Who built it? What is it made of? Does it still have a recognizable function? What is it worth as infrastructure, artifact, even as aesthetic object? These too are allegorical versions of similar questions we might – though we tend not to – ask of ourselves.

            We now begin to sense that though simile is generally a value-neutral exercise – I am going to travel from here to there and what might I expect to encounter along the way? – the function of metaphor is not so lightly regarded. Metaphor is, in a word, pregnant with meaning in a way mere simile is not. Just as doing again does not mean doing over, so ‘asness’ is not ‘isness’. It is more than old hat to recall classroom definitions at this point: a simile suggests that one thing is like another, but a metaphor states that one thing is another. The first is prosaic, the second poetic, as Bernstein, in his 1973 Norton lectures, frequently points out. The casual distances between Dasein and World, or, more experientially, between myself and the world, are given to simile first, before metaphor can occur to us or place itself before us. One place reminds me of another; perhaps it is my home I am missing. But at the end of the day, this new place is not my home in any sense, let alone that poetic. In order for a new experience to actually be some other that I have already had, it appears on the face of it that we must refute both Freud, Schutz, and many other thinkers. This is, however, not absolutely the case. In substitution I recognize that simple sameness is not the same as metaphoric consubstantiation. In simile, there is resemblance, not exactitude. But as sameness itself cannot in fact be – what is lost is lost, past is past, dust is dust – we forgive our casual language in contriving in the face of asness a sense of ‘just like’. Here, embedded in the meaningfulness of our use of such a seemingly trite phrase, lies our ability to merge phenomenology with ethics. Likeness, or asness, need only remind us of the other. But consubstantiation, while not ever being exactly the same river, is yet more than a simple likeness. It has, through devotion, experience, or even time served, attained the just value and status in our existence to connote a certain kind of justice when it is present. We may be warm if we think of vindication, valediction, even veneration if we were so adoring of what is now forever absent. Yet, just as with the composite whole of distanciatedness we encounter when coming into or up against the world as it is and thence the unshared cosmos arcing out into infinitude, we also now are immersed in a holism of closeness that plunges into the shared existential arc of intimitude.

Two: Allegory in Popular Narrative as an attempt to obviate infinity and intimacy

            However revelatory this newly recognized holism may occur to us as, it presents itself before us neither as an objection nor as an intended subjection. Certainly, the range of human charm and gloss may be fraudulently intending us as its next victim, but even so, such is eventually detected and cast aside, or it may yet ennoble itself confronting our presence, or that same may occur to us. In fact, this is in itself a narrative oft given over to sentiment; the usurious – or at least, the relatively ignoble, and this known to themselves or no – are redeemed by love (Winston Smith), by fate (Oedipus), by charity (Scrooge), and so on. And yet in each of these examples redemption is itself only partial. Orwell’s hero is not so heroic after all, giving into his material fears, Sophocles’ regent is blinded so that he can see the better, and Dickens’ caricature remains a caricature, even though he’s now suddenly a decent fellow. Rather than any of this, what we do in our own lives is experience the partiality of largesse and egress therefrom along the way, at each moment and in each encounter. R.D. Laing’s difficult and disconcerting dialogue ‘Knots’ speaks to the first without necessarily providing the second. And we do know that much of what is lost in living narrative is so because I and Thou have not been able to come to meaningful terms about what each of us holds as indeed meaningful. This said, there are enough, once again, living examples of egress that allow us both to simply live on without an overwhelming self-mockery, as well as undertake the self-understanding that relies not so much on experience alone but rather in the just likeness of the next.

            This ‘next’ is raised beyond her mere instrumentality. Though we place a great deal of import on events and things, other persons remain for us the most fulfilling, as well as the most inscrutable, encounters and presences over the life course. We may understand the mystery of the non-conscious cosmos well before we attain the same facility with human consciousness, let alone that of prospective other species. But in undertaking the second task, we bring to it some in-built existential advantages. One is our ability to circumspect: “When something is close by, this means that it is within range of what is proximally ready-to-hand for circumspection.” (ibid:142). Here, closeness is itself concerned-with ‘concernful Being-in-the-world’. It is an apprehension regarding intimitude. Once again, this experience is two-souled: we are apprehensive about such an encounter, especially if we have, in our phantasms, projected an imaginative sequence upon the to-be-lived narrative in which we emerge heroic or at least redeemed. Yet we are also apprehended by it; one, we may be ‘caught out’ either in our daring dulcissimo  – I’m not her type after all, or more widely, not God’s gift to women et al – or two, we may become entangled by her own wiles, however contrived or authenticating. We keep to ourselves as best we can the first, but in both species of the second, all becomes known. Hence the gift and task of circumspection. How will I avoid being apprehended? How can I accept my apprehension? How might the other seek to avoid apprehending me in the manner of an ethical vivisection – we are not generally ‘out to get’ one another in this sense, for instance – and how might she as well overcome her own trepidations about any potentially ensuing closeness with me. Our casual language betrays these ethical bemusements. We say ‘there is a certain intimacy between us’, or that ‘the two of us are like one thing at times’. Inherently contradictory, such phrases and many others exemplify our equivocal understanding of both ourselves and the others involved in any ‘coming before’. The terms ‘intimacy’ and ‘between’ are at odds, and the simile of the two-in-one is always to be taken as a kind of passion, or at best, a compassion, and not a reality to be discovered as one might discover a way to ‘observe’ the Big Bang. Though we are not desevered from another being in the same way was we are with the world’s elemental presence let alone with our own presence upon the planet as physical world, we nonetheless are aware of the proximal relations between objects in the world and the thou. In the end, we are not one thing. With sobriety, there is a between after all. So redemption is but partial in real life as well as in story, and heroism is just as human, if not generally as hyperbolic, as it is narrated to be.

            This is not a resignation. Only novels and epics have patent endings. Dasein is completed not when it ends but when it no longer exists. I am completed in my personal death. I am made complete by it. I am not a creation of another, and thus I am also not a character let alone a caricature, that is, unless I permit myself to descend to such a level. Personhood has its penumbra, certainly, but nevertheless its authenticity remains in its concernfulness, in its care. It cannot be ‘written over’ though it can write itself again and again. Through circumspection, we might identify with a fictional figure and recognize in him an aspect of ourselves. Writing is like waking dreaming in this way. Akin to therapy but with both a more noble and a deeper concern and outcome – this second due to its generalizability and its occurrence in the lives of others whom we otherwise would never touch – writing is the isness of being. Yes, poetry, as mentioned, attains a loftier height because it no longer feels the recursive pull that recourse to simile exerts upon meaning. But because we are beings of language first and history only following from this – the instance comes before the circumstance, as it were; we encounter one another through language and only then do we place ourselves in a history towards one another – writing overcomes what is at first only likeness by virtue of reading. The reader becomes what the writer only suggests. This of course may be a passing encounter, kindred to all those we would have loved if only we had made more intimate contact with them. Even so, the key to de-severing what is at first almost as desevered as is the world is to engage in the language of self-understanding; taking the isness of metaphor ironically quite literally. I am Thou. But equally so, she is me. Much of western ethics travels from this point of self-recognition. Yes, the currents of our contemporary river state that we must recognize the other for herself, and this too follows therefrom the moment of self-recognition. But even so, we are compelled to primordially accept that what can happen to one can happen to all.

            I thus direct my being not to the world as something which objects to me or to that which makes me into an object, but rather a being who is subjected to my presence inasmuch as I am to her own. I may not intend such subjection in any darker sense, but my coming before the other is at least a two-souled prospect into which my Dasein is at first desevered. My very subjectivity – itself a distanciated composite of subjection, of becoming a subject in another’s narrative, as well as perhaps more obliquely, the sometimes shocking subjectitude of being merely another and neither hero nor redeemer – confronts her own and forces upon it a self-recognition. If not, we risk the holocaust of fatal deseverance, where the other is no different from the object alone. Enter once again Dasein’s ability to not only engage in circumspection, but also to be circumspect: “Both directionality and de-severance, as modes of Being-in-the-world, are guided beforehand by the circumspection of concern.” (ibid:143, italics the text’s). Often enough thus far, I and Thou are beholden in degrees to this ethical process that the nominal sharedness of the world is at least seen as an impediment to its self-destruction.

            Not so in fictional narrative. In the main, contemporary allegory is shamefacedly in avoidance of self-recognition, and by this I mean it seeks to do the very opposite. Whenever current disquiet is addressed, whether it be ethical iniquities or material inequities, entertainment fiction distances the world portrayed far enough from us so that the audience can ultimately dismiss it as ‘mere fiction’, which it unfortunately is, or at best, ‘a good metaphor’, though in fact here it is neither. It is not good because it does not participate in the ‘just likeness’ with enough ethical proximity. It is thus also not a metaphor because it remains stuck in asness. Yet it is more than a mere fiction, for the injustice of such narratives comes before us because in fact they were planned ahead of time to be just that. Their projects of action included the caveat that the reader or viewer must not take the story metaphorically. It cannot be real; it cannot possess the isness of intimitude. ‘Three Percent’, an oddly glamorous Orwellian dystopia, is set into the future. ‘Game of Thrones’, an unsophisticated Shakespearean political melodrama, is set into an alternate world. ‘His Dark Materials’, Paradise Lost meets Harry Potter, is at once set into 1950s Britain and into the warmed-over theatrical settings of an imperial nostalgia, if not as well a nostalgia for imperialism; of the world, by the word, for the idea of truth. Once again, distancing, calculated and cynical, attempts a composite of distanciatedness in mimicry of that which Dasein brings to the world of objectifying encounters. Popular narrative is but a simile of existence.

            If this were unplanned we might take it apart and adjust it the better. We might simply rewrite the tired sophism of plot and the mechanical inevitability of plot device. We might engender a new respect for our shared weaknesses, or yet we might even engage in circumspection. But because popular allegorical narrative is deliberately distanced from reality in a manner no classical epic would have tolerated, we instead must interrogate the motives for such undertakings that in reality eschew metaphor all the while proclaiming themselves to be ‘only metaphorical’, that is, not to be taken literally or at face-value. The dishonesty of such works is both patent – in that it repeats itself without end in streaming, gaming, novels and film – and potent – in that it seeks the impotence of the agentive interlocutor by turning him into a mere consumer of sentiment. If it is the reader/viewer who brings the isness to the narrative, the story must first be set at such a distance as to sabotage the existential metaphor. We cannot become overly concerned with a fictional character who must, after all, act in a world which does not in fact exist. We cannot overtly care for a factional cause that animates a community or organization that is not real. We cannot truly empathize, within the ambit of Dasein’s authentic self-undertaking, with a hero who betrays his chorus by reaching for a zenith of excitement about, or desire for, or camaraderie with, yet another heroine who in her turn, makes false the lie that we viewers are forced to live. This screening over of reality is popular allegory’s dominant task. Its function is to distance ourselves from ourselves, decoy us from our shared lot. It does so by at once pretending to show us our condition ‘at a distance’ so that we can reflect upon its reality in the world as it is. But the allegory is too distant, the characters too villainous or too heroic, or perhaps yet sometimes even too introspective, to be ultimately believable. They might be believable as characters, yes. They have, in their best moments, attained the asness of simile which reminds us of ourselves. What we so desperately need is, however, characters who are ourselves and narratives which intend the isness of concernful being in the world. The distanciatedness of composite metaphorical narrative in allegory must give way to the authentic metaphor of a playing out of actuating circumstance that in turn seeks concernfulness in the world.

            Contemporary and urban fantasy genres in their most realistic instances have the greatest chance of providing this more authentic metaphor, if only in principal, and not necessarily in actual product. Here, outré elements are secondary to both plot and character development. The setting is our own world, not some other distant in time, space, imagination, or all three. The concerns are our own concerns, not those of Milton, Orwell, or Shakespeare, let alone Marvel or DC Comics. It is still somewhat sage to nod to perennial human conditions, that Sophocles still tests us, though in a different way, even as he tested the Greeks of his own era. This much remains true, and it is also, after all, enough. But even dramatizations of the canon cannot save us. What needs be done is that the kerygma of concernfulness that exists in literature and art be ported into the reality of worldly concern. Art should no longer ‘imitate’ life, for this is but another asness, another simile. That human life cannot be art in any literal sense is also not what is at issue. Rather, it is the lack in popular culture of what art itself interrogates us with that allows us to blithely go on watching as the wearied world passes us by and along with it, any sense that caring, concern, circumspection, and justice should continue to animate our once-shared consciousness.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty 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 two decades.

The Religion of Criminality

The Religion of Criminality

            With the news that various faith-based organizations across the nation are flouting by-laws regarding mass assembly, the old tension between church and state has resurrected itself, apropos, given the time of year. For me, it was always to be expected that so-called evangelicals would be at the vanguard of this kind of passive-aggressive resistance to both civility and citizenship, but when Wheatley Ontario’s Mennonites began to jump in, my own quasi-ethnic background surfaced to bite on my own conscience. Not in a serious manner, but just enough to both condemn these erstwhile brethren as well as wonder why they might be engaging in what amounts to a public health menace. No true Christian would ever knowingly put his neighbor at risk. And while it is easier to dismiss the neo-fascist fake Christians as being simply that, when it comes to Menno Simons’ followers the issue appears more nuanced. Why so?

            My own father left home at seventeen, lied about his age and joined the RCN to fight in the Battle of the Atlantic. For the pacifist Mennonites this was more than a scandal. Not only was one engaging in violence but also doing so at the behest of the state, the historical victor over the church, all churches. This paradoxical effort at liberation in part allowed me, decades later, to become who I now am, a critical social philosopher, something that in the rearward facing climes of warmed-over old world beliefs would simply not have been imaginable. I owe my father much on that account. Even so, it is an odd paradox that the one who seeks freedom from the state shares much with the thinker, whose loyalty is also to something other than ideology and citizenship. The Greeks replaced myth with science, language transitioned from mythos to logos, and thus the gods were supplanted by thought itself. Sophia, herself the goddess of wisdom, was kind of like a mole in Greek mythology, unraveling the mythic tapestry from within, unlike Prometheus, who suffered endlessly because though he was also humanity’s ally, he pushed the revolution along from without.

            My father was an insider who went outside. I would never return to complete a personal circle, as it were, but at the same time, I understand the confluence that lies between those whose loyalty is to some higher being, however imaginary or no, and someone like myself, whose loyalty is to what I take to be a higher sensibility; ethics, rationality, reason, interpretation, reflection, critique. Philosophy is, after all, the child of religious thought, just as science is the child of religious myth. The Wheatley group have been engaging in the critique of the state even if they have also been engaged in unethical, even criminal, activity. This is no mere ‘civil’ disobedience on their parts. It is manifestly uncivil to place others at a health risk, especially those who do not agree to be so placed. Is it too much to believe that every single person in this or that congregation would only and ever associate with the remainder of said congregation, day in day out, forever and ever, or at least, until all are vaccinated? This kind of leap of faith is actually more of a chasm than even a belief in God, whose being, after all, is not disproven by science, merely rolled back, much in the same manner as is religious explanation curtailed in its territory by that scientific.

            It is not a leap that I am willing to make. The local public authorities must get much more serious about stopping such assemblies. They can even use Christian ethics to support their legal efforts. Why do the vast majority of churches meet on-line, when all of them would ideally meet in person? This alone dispels any far-fetched rationale that only a very few churches – say in the rural Fraser Valley of BC and in similar areas within Ontario and Quebec, for instance – have the ‘true’ message of their God in their hearts. No, these folks are simply using religion to commit a crime, and in doing so, have placed themselves on the same spectrum as the likes of the Taliban. How far will they go in their delusion of being persecuted? Maybe we should ask the average Afghani to predict what the thin edge of the wedge can really mean when people use their fraudulent faith as a cloak for their more naked desire for power.

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