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.

Past Lives I have Loved and Lost, part two: the possibility of a transcendental memory.

Back in 1996, Carl Sagan made brief reference to then more rarely encountered cases of ‘past life memory’. Over the past quarter-century more than 2500 such cases have appeared as documented, first, in para-psychology journals and more recently in mainstream ones. Finally, commercial press has taken note of them and counselling psychologists have advised parents of children apparently exhibiting such behaviors to more or less ignore them, as they always seem to pass away with age. Sagan suggested at the time that such cases ‘might be worth a closer look’, though he doubted both their ultimate veracity and verifiability.

Given the epistemic structure of consciousness that Sagan shared with many persons who live in our own historical epoch, it would be difficult to accept at face value the idea that such a serial experience as multiple existences could be historically accurate or biographically real. But such an idea is of course an ancient one, and one not at all foreign to many of the world’s belief systems. Indeed, as we are with many things, it is we, as scientific-minded moderns, who are in the minority to this regard. From reincarnative world systems to social contract cosmologies, the idea of multiple lives is common-place and unworthy of much comment. The vast majority of human experience as an evolutionary consciousness has simply accepted the sense that one lives, dies, and returns to live again as a matter of course.

It is equally transparent that today we tend to view these beliefs as rationalizations against a fundamental mortality and finiteness that we observe in the world-as-it-is. Yet we are being asked, in reference to these other vantage points, if there is yet not a difference between finiteness and finitude, a difference between the structure of perception and the nature of consciousness. Parts of modern philosophy suggest that there is a difference, without reference to the idea of past lives or any other such possibility. The death which is mine own, which cannot be shared, and towards which I run headlong, is a horizon that is neither public nor finite in any objective sense. It cannot be identified simply because the precise timing of our personal deaths cannot be known in advance. In this, our death is a radically ‘subjective’ event. It cannot be said to be an ‘experience’ in any mundane sense of the term. Indeed, it is also commonplace for the philosopher to state that ‘I cannot experience my own death, only that of others’. Furthermore, no matter how many passings to which I have myself been witness, this does not alleviate from me the burden of having to face down my own death, nor does it exempt me from the problem of the Other itself. No matter how many others die, not only must I still myself die but there remains yet more others to remind me that the otherness of the Other itself lives on.

Perhaps this is one of the experiential sources of the idea of past lives. A person dies, perhaps even a loved on, an intimate, but most of the time, these persons are recalled to memory by the living-on of other persons. It is not that the dead are summarily ‘replaced’. Freud, in a poignant letter to Binswanger from 1929, points out that in fact we never make substitutions of this sort, and in not doing so, this is in fact the manner in which we remember the beloved dead. More common than even this is the facticity of resemblance. We often tell ourselves that we know many people, but fewer characters, as individual persons who are different from one another nevertheless exhibit many of the same traits, especially if they hail from a similar cultural background. Although the old ‘culture and personality’ school of mid-20th century anthropological psychology has fallen out of favour, there remains something of this in our casual bigotries towards ‘the others’. As telling as this is, it is also sage to note that we stereotype ourselves for the sake of convenience as well, not wishing to disassemble our own society for fear of worse to come.

And I think that this is the more essential reason that lurks behind our general unwillingness to examine the phenomena of childhood past life memory. To begin to take apart the sense of selfhood that animates our current life journey – I am one thing, in one time and place, in the world as it is known at present etc. – is tantamount to placing the entire notion of existence at a parallax. It raises the kinds of questions that might betray us to bitterness, resentment, and perhaps even ressentiment: Why these few persons and not others? Do only a select and insignificant number of persons get to ‘live again’? If I have one at all, is it possible that my soul is new and not old? What does that mean, if anything? How could old souls reanimate? Is it a random process of regeneration? Is it a fifth elemental force of organismic evolution, so far overlooked? Why do such ‘memories’, if that is what they are, fade or are superseded over time? If such souls are old, would not their accumulated wisdom wish to express itself? Or is anything we do in this life patently predicted by what we actually have already done, outside of our current ken, in past lives that all of us have once lived?

This last question is the one that is truly offensive to any modern person who shares as sacred the idea that we are free beings, and that our will alone is what should determine our destinies. So not only is the nature of existence called into question by these growing numbers of cases but more radically, so is our conception of human freedom, itself a very recent invention and, judging by world politics, also a very fragile one.

Although ‘old souls’ and ‘past lives’ appear to us as at best romantic reveries – and I use both as plot devices in my Kristen-Seraphim saga – there is yet no plausible current-life experiential explanation for the memory content exhibited by these children. It is also difficult to imagine a scientific manner of further investigating them other than what has already been done to confirm the accuracy of the memories in question. Could we imagine travelling back in time and confronting the previous ‘host’ in order to interrogate about a future life of which they would presumably have no knowledge? The entire data set confounds not only experiential life but also rational discourse as we have developed it over the past four centuries. From the point of view of the work I do, such cases serve to underscore the human ability to step back from our lives as lived and examine their serial selfhood as it is in a singular life. For we already know we do not remain the ‘same’ people throughout the life course. This would be an unmitigated disaster, and the prolonging of adolescence into one’s thirties in some regions today is testament to this. Beyond this, we are placed squarely in the imagination which, being also uniquely human, commits us to the wonder of all things both present and perhaps also not quite past.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty five books in ethics, aesthetics, religion and education and more recently a ten volume adventure saga. He was professor of the human sciences for over twenty years.