The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

            One could thus say that history is action in the realm of the imaginary, or even the spectacle that one gives oneself of an action. Conversely, action consults history, which teaches us, says Weber, certainly not what must be willed, but the true meaning of our volitions. (Merleau-Ponty, 1955:11).

                Recently the activist slogan ‘the personal is the political’ has become well known to anyone who has attempted to identify themselves and thus their actions with a cause. This ‘volition’, this being-for-something, has a number of meanings as well as manifestations. And it is to its own history – the act that has been and not the action which will be – that we must look to find the pedigree of interconnected meanings which have accrued to this or that sensibility regarding our actions in the present. Weber is the first to thoroughly understand this relationship, which originates as an horizon of expectations and associated historical lenses in Vico by 1725. For it is in the distinction between finite goals and absolute values that we discover both action and act in tandem and as mutually imbricated.

            Let us first examine our sense of what constitutes ‘the personal’. For the Greeks, the purely private person was termed the ‘idiot’, the one who turns his back upon not only his civic duties but sociality in general. We could, with perhaps a mere footnote, continue such a use of this term today. But other Greek terms are more expansive and collide more forcefully with our modern horizon of meaningful expectation. The person who flouts social custom and morality is the ‘moron’. Such a term is in scant use today, at least in polite circles, but its general meaning is well taken. Of course, yet more obscure now is the Greek’s term for the one who flouts the fates themselves; he is nothing less than the ‘hypermoron’. But we can safely dismiss this bold individual given the altered meaning of destiny in modernity. We do, however, still understand those who simply don’t seem to ‘get it’, whether the scene is civility, sociality, citizenship or yet domesticity or the work life, as being not merely abnormative culturally but also somehow beyond the social succor of mutual aid. ‘They don’t want to fit in’, is something we hear of such fellowmen, with the heavy ellipsis that we should, in our turn, feel no sympathy for them since, in their ‘moronic’ action they add to the stress and strain felt by the remainder of us who continue to labor for a sane society and a healthy humanity.

            At the same time, we are aware of the tension between the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, the person and the polis. It seems to us a perennial one but in fact it is scarcely three centuries old. The ‘sovereign’ individual of the Enlightenment remains a Western ideal, even though personal rights are either questioned or yet limited in many places globally. But even in the West, we are shy of declaring the fullest range of human rights to the singular self simply because no society could exist without some certain set of limitations placed upon that same selfhood. These boundaries are under constant scrutiny and have been found to be most mutable, for better or for worse. And since the individual cannot ever be entirely free of obligation to the group, another modern distinction has come to the fore; that between public and private.

            It is in Arendt that we find the deepest exposition of the relationships between the public life of a member of the polis and the privacy of that same person’s alternate domain. Mirroring in a kind of ‘material’ manner the much more ancient distinction between the life of contemplation and the life of action, the one today understood as personalist and even private – though not in the utter disregard for either the public life or its ‘action’ – and the other observed in the shared sphere of the ‘open space’ of the public. It is this further division between how others may or may not interact with the person who has committed her thoughts to the private sphere and equally been committed to her actions in the collective realm that gives us the impression that we have inevitably and necessarily divided ourselves into two patently differing parts. Psyche and Anthropos, soul and form, mind and body, person and persona and so on, all cleave to this contemporary sense – and is it not also a sensation? – that I am not one thing entire but rather two relatively discreet entities; my ‘truer’ self and what I show to the world.

            Certainly at this point it can be gainsaid that both such conceptions of the self are ‘true’ in that they have both validity – a conceptual forcefulness and sensibility that includes both fact and value – and veridicity – that it is convincing enough to generate a portion of our worldview or social reality. When we casually, but regularly, tell someone that ‘this is a personal matter’, we are speaking over the divide that tells between these two major aspects of modern selfhood. In due course, much of what may have been occluded comes to wider light, whether in politics or in biography. This tells us that the personal is time sensitive. Something overfull with meaning at one point in our lives may even become devoid of relevant meaning later on. Each of us, having lived long enough, will experience many such transitions, which in turn tell us that the apparently discreet division between private and public, personal and impersonal, is at the least quite mobile and its discretions are liquid. Both of these characteristics impinge on any sense that in principle, ‘the personal is the political’, that is, always is so.

            Clearly, in fact, it is not. Indeed, as vouchsafed by the vast majority of social media posts, what people take to be personal and yet are avidly interested in sharing with certain others is hardly political in nature and never will become so. Now one may argue, with Baudrillard for instance, that the oft perverse simulacra constructed by and through digital life is after all representative of a kind of politics, the oddly but fittingly also perverse ‘politics of the apolitical’, shall we say. This suggestion is not without merit, but it remains a distortion of the widely shared social meaning of that which the polis consists: the collective identity and obligation of a culture as made manifest by the members thereof. Insofar as digital pedantry documenting the innumerable and seemingly interminable quotidia of the daily round is neither collectively identified with – witness the digital cliques often in conflict with one another – nor is anyone obligated to pay any attention thereto, these ‘persona of personalism’ remain outside meaningful political thought and action alike.

            The same cannot be said for the impersonal. Let us now turn to this obverse concept. If the ‘personal’ cannot be either ‘idiocy’ or ‘publicity’, and we have suggested it cannot in principle and by definition as well be the political, the ‘impersonal’ appears to escape all of these limitations in one stroke. One, the impersonal is manifest not in individuals at all but rather in social institutions, such as the church, the state, and the modern state’s minions; the education system, the various governmental ministries, the civil service, and the military. This is not to say that the effects of the presence of such sets of institutions might not be personally felt by individuals, it is merely to state that the institutions themselves can never be thought of as either personal or private. The so-called ‘private sector’ remains public and impersonal no matter whether or not the state invests in it, and indeed in our time, most such organizations are ‘public/private’ hybrids, leading to a host of other conflicts, the most scandalous of which in any democracy is the two-tiered education system. In any case, the impersonal now appears to be larger than life, if such is only defined biographically or from the perspective of a smaller community of shared interest and action.

            For Weber, modern rational organizations were anonymous, both in that very sense of ‘being impersonal’ and in their freedom from individual suasion and thus also obligation. Such an institution was part of his ‘ideal types’ analysis, wherein absolute values were shunned and finite goals structured all action. The very notion of the ’act’, as both historical and visionary, the one providing a kind of testament to the other’s cosmogonical birth, could not be part of any rationally self-defining organization, whether ‘public’ or ‘private’ sector. Just so, the modern rational individual – who is both private and public and participates almost equally in both self-defining ‘sectors’ in the more base sense of where the money comes from and who has sanctioned access to it – finds herself possessed by finite goals and is placed at a fair distance from any vision of an absolute value. Peter Berger, following upon Weber, has reiterated that what used to be understood as cosmic in both scope and import has oddly become what is most intimate and personal for us today; the religious vision is perhaps only the most obvious example of this transfiguration of ideals. Today, one can hang one’s hat upon a personalist religious sensibility and this makes one all the more unique, the singular soldier of a Christianity that is about your soul and no other, for instance. In no other historically known period could this make any sense.

            Similarly, the impersonality of modern institutions, however they may depart from Weber’s ideal rationality and impunity from private interest, declaim their symbolic frontages as capable only within the realm of the cultural imaginary. That is, a state governs a people only insofar as it can convince the latter that it does not truly exist without them. In reality, modern government appears to exist in precisely this fashion, giving those who labor within it, elected or hired or appointed, the equally distanciated sense that though they are ‘public servants’, neither such a public, nor hence their service to it, in actuality exists.

            So if we take the personal to be the space wherein action is contemplated in the privacy of one’s own individual musings, wherein ‘projects of action’ are worked out in a speculative, ‘phantasmatic’ fashion, and within which one can decline any real social responsibility – thoughts are yet ‘free’, as is said – at once we must deny the activist’s ideal. Instead, the personal is not necessarily, not yet, or yet never, the political. But we have seen it is otherwise with the impersonal. Though it strives, in its most rational and ideal form, to be apolitical, in reality and in history it is ever cleaving to this or that politics of the day. This is especially the case in nations where the civil service occupies a great proportion of institutional roles, such as in education or governmentality or health care. Only in the judiciary may we expect a strenuous public disavowal of the political, even though, once again, we know that the laws of today and indeed, on the ground, how any such set of laws is actually enforced and upon whom, are very much political in their origin.

            What advantage does this discussion hold out for the individual who, on the one hand, must balance her private selfhood, her desires, her anxieties, her prostrate fears and visionary hopes, with her public persona and its singular ambitions, collective responsibilities, reciprocal obligations and loyalist duties, and on the other hand, that same person’s efforts to translate thought into action without ever the sense that such ensuing action be either complete or yet completely fulfilled in its intended meaning? I think first of all that a clarification of what is meant by the term ‘personal’ is to our advantage. One, we no longer need guard it with such stentorian status; the personal is mostly just that, undeserving of much consideration from others, and so mutable as to dislocate our too-pious loyalty thereto. At the same time, two, the impersonal is laid more open to a general critique, some of which must emanate from a personalist perspective – in that I am affected sometimes intimately by anonymous actions originating in impersonal spaces; the stock market is perhaps the most obvious but also egregious day-to-day example – and the remainder of which must hail from the hallows of history and as well advance from the actions of the culture at large. Three, if there is a dialectic at hand, it can only be envisioned not as some ‘life/work balance’, some other ‘financial freedom’, or yet an ‘holistic health’, to name a few casual catchphrases which likely construe a vulgar politics of their own. No, such an apex, such a synthesis, will only be achieved through the constant and consistent critical stance applied by an effective ethical consciousness that in itself has already understood itself as being neither personal nor political but rather historical through and through. For history is the answer to morality, the saboteur of ideology, the humanity in the organization, the humaneness in the individual. We are in our essence nothing other than historical beings, and our local divisions, our divided selfhoods, are within it once again united in concert within its deontological embrace.

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

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.