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 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.

Indwelling versus Entanglement: person or citizen, neighbor or censor?

Resoluteness, a concept at the heart of Heideggerean ethics, resolves to provide for itself no real resolution. It also solves nothing. What it does do is resolves to face down the nothingness by which Dasein imagines it is threatened, and in so doing, forgets itself. If this is bewildering for us, then it is due to the problem of life giving us the ability to live in the present. Too much history and we would not now how to think of even the day at hand. If on could not forget anything at all, one could never experience anything new or anew.

And yet because we have ourselves lived those past times and we were there, there is still a puzzle: “This bewilderment is based upon a forgetting.” (1962:392 [1927], italics mine). Yes, a specific kind of forgetting that in fact evades resoluteness, we are told. Dasein’s ‘potentiality’ is put on hold, and we ‘leap from the next to the next’ (ibid). This is how we leave what is still present; we are not ‘in’ the environment any more, we do not dwell within it, there is no such moment of indwelling that characterizes Dasein’s actual ownmost possibility and facticity. This is instead replaced by entanglement. In turn, this aids the very kind of forgetting that started the process: “The possibility of memory depends on the continued existence of the past; nothing in the actual present explains memory.” (Lampert 2012:142). It may not ‘explain’ it insofar as the present as it is never contains the source material for the memory content, but nevertheless allows it because having a memory is something that we have in the present. In this way one can agree with Husserl’s explicative statement regarding the character of memory in general where “…the antithesis of perception is primary remembrance, which appears here, and primary expectation (retention and protention [respectively]), whereby perception and non-perception continually pass over into one another.” (1964:62 [1905], italics the text’s). It is reasonable to state that neither memory nor anticipation are the same as perception per se, and yet both are still perceived in some manner, otherwise we would have no ability to recall anything at all nor would here be a sense of the future. Dasein would lose on of its ontological ‘faculties’, its being-able-to-be ‘ahead of itself’.

Indeed, we are told that Dasein does not possess this ability in the way we would something at hand or in hand, but rather simply is ahead of itself. So a memory must in some ways aid this being. It is self-evident that anticipation does, or at least, is its outcome, but memory? These may be relived as ‘peaks’ or linger as ‘sheets’ (cf. Lampert on Deleuze, op. cit:164), but whatever terminology we utilize, there must be a characteristic facility and indeed, faculty, that allows what we think of the as the past to not place us ‘behind ourselves’. Minkowski provides the first clue to this apparent puzzle, in which the lack of memory subverts and even outright sabotages the ability to think ahead: “…the form of mental life which we term memory deficiency is dominated, not by a momentary, instantaneous now, as one would expect, but on the contrary, in certain cases at least, by the principle of unfolding in time, functioning in a void.” (op. cit:381). What exactly is this ‘unfolding’, and what, in turn, is being unfolded? Clinging to something or other, clasping it to one’s anxious breast, clambering about, as we will see below, but not ascending, or yet climbing down with a view to lose the view one already had, folds us in on ourselves. This is uncomfortable no matter what kind of metaphor we employ, so one must back out. In doing so, in order to not regain either the perspective of the present or the ‘being-aheadedness’ of one’s ontological structure – though of course this doesn’t vanish just because we have vanished from whatever scene is at hand – we unfold ourselves only in time, but not in any kind of recognizable space. The void carries within it the simple and yet profound lack of perspective, by definition. At a personal level, unfolding in the manner about which Minkowski speaks is a debasement of Dasein, though it does follow a pattern: “This logical process of debasement and profanation is linked to another process that it must reinforce in order to eliminate it.” (Kristeva 1996:14 [1993]). Here the ‘sinner is turned into a saint’, even if Kristeva shortly thereafter describes this narrative trope as a mere cliché, which it is. Proust’s ‘woman-cake’ – such pastries are often called ‘madeleine’s in France, just so, the made-to-order ‘Marie-madeleine’ and thence the rest of its tired trope – is an example of the bracketing of actual ambiguity in order to objectify not the presence so much as a kind of presentation. This is theatre, surely, but it is also myth.

Whatever satisfaction we may have gotten from the mother, whatever threat we may have survived from the father or their surrogates, the church on the one hand, the state on the other perhaps, regression is itself based upon keeping close to us a certain flavor of both. But “Because these split-off aspects of the parent’s ego are governed by repetition compulsion, they are acted out repeatedly upon the child.” (Shabad 1989:106). In turn, we gradually construct a persona of personhood based upon these fragments that we have found to be ironically the most extreme, and therefore the most memorable, that later denudes the full Dasein of its potentiality-for-being’ in way different from that of the false forgetting. This is “…An identity perversely based on all those identifications and roles which, at critical stages of development, had been presented to the individual as most undesirable or dangerous, and yet, also the most real.” (Erikson 1960:61 [1956]). Here, memories such as these cannot be plainly and simply forgotten. They have to first be reinforced in order to be eliminated, in a manner uncannily like how they came to be present in the first place. Within this process lies the at-handedness of entanglement, for in reinforcing these memories, bringing them into a fuller presence, we risk becoming addicted to this stage alone, all the while rationalizing it as a first step ‘out’.

Regression is a too easy moment. Its moment is that of a momentum that appears to us as momentous. In a society wherein juvenile behavior and the viewpoint of adolescence is celebrated, is the main market target, and is lengthened perhaps decades after its primary purpose has been met, regression is, quite literally, everywhere: “But in any event, the permanent object concept is stabilized by the period of adolescence and therefore the inner concept of the actual parent is not given up.” (Pine 1989:162). We do not wish to give it up, because early on, the parent is perceived as being what we should be. Many parents, though fewer today than in the past, actively encourage their children to ape themselves, either in personality, vocation, or even ideologically. This only adds to the problem already present. It is debatable whether or not the analytic school has identified ‘deeper’ processes of such identifications in the sado-sexual or surrogate-sexual modes, but however that may be, it does not matter for a phenomenological argument. Ideology, for instance, can run quite deep in a person’s attitudinal matrix, and certainly the personality or ‘esteem’ by which we hold ourselves together on many fronts, public and private, is deeply held as well. Regression as a the chief perpetrator and phenomena of the externality of remorse desires this strangeness that has come over it. Unlike this or that stigmatized ethnic or linguistic group, we want to be a stranger to ourselves. We are patently evading the responsibility to confront our ownmost possibility, in death or some other major life-transfiguration, so we cannot in all conscience say that we are “… a stranger who does not wish to be a stranger.” (Antonovsky 1960:428). No, we are more akin to the ‘cat’ than the ‘Jew’: “Within in his own isolated social world, the cat attempts to give form and purpose to dispositions derived from but denied an outlet within the dominant social order.” (Finestone 1960:439 [1957]). This ‘denial’ in fact comes from within us. In the everyday realm of both the ontic and, perhaps over against Heidegger’s claims, the inauthentic as well, the spectrum between doing what one ‘has’ to do and one’s desires includes things like the ‘hobby’ and the perversion alike. ‘Cats’ in fact have day jobs, those who retire can do so with the calm assurance of being about to follow the call of a narrowed set of desires. The issue at hand is really more along the lines of youth having to confront the fullness of every human desire. Indeed, one could almost equally say that the innocent and the corrupt both are conjured by the dreamtime of youth alone.

Which is perhaps the more structural reason why sexual desire, for instance, often turns to regression and this regression needs not be kept secret at all. It is transparent that youth have these desires and are suppressed by the ‘dominant’ order generally due to our ressentiment regarding the loss of our own youth. Sexuality is repressed, yes, but not the regression by which it makes its self-remorse external. No, indeed, adults want to see the manifestation of this repression in young people. We celebrate it as our victory and ours alone: “This reveals nothing less than a desexualization of sex itself. Pleasure that is either kept cornered or accepted with smiling complaisance is no longer pleasure at all.” (Adorno, op. cit:73). We are now seeing the first foreshadowing of our third topic, that of nostalgia, for within all of this external suppression and thence internal repression, the process of remorseful regression takes refuge in fantasy. Sex is, after all, one thing. Any aspect of one’s youth – and recall just here how modernity is founded on both the advent of youth and its immediate alienation – including non-responsibility, some disposable income, and the much more serious experiences such as wonder and the newness of things, is lost along the way to adulthood. Adulthood too, it must also be recalled, is not at all the same thing as maturity. It is more or less a coincidence that maturity can only come within the period of life we call adulthood (or yet perhaps ‘old age’),  given our extended phases of life in contemporary technological society. But whenever ‘mature being’ provides for us authentic indwelling, it is also clear that we have lost a great deal both petty and profound, and this in turn provokes an unhealthy politics of ‘restoration’, not unlike the reaction that lashes back at any revolutionary period: “Mainly because man must surrender to the generalizing institution, he continually searches for his own individuality and the lost possibilities of childhood.” (Meerloo 1960:516 [1958]). It is somehow odd to speak of possibility being ‘lost’. Does not the very conception entail its indefinite open-endedness? What has been only possible surely remains possible no matter what. It retains, as against even the probable and self-evidently the certain, its choate temporal and existential structure. Yes, it too is part of the human imagination, so what is more likely actually being lost through the process of maturation – not maturity, mind you – is precisely imagination and all this implies. ‘Man’ too is already generalized, even institutional, but this is clearly not what Meerloo is getting at. One does after all not attempt to individualize ‘Man’ but rather oneself. So personhood must give way to persona.

Social role theory explicates this transition and dynamic so very well that we forget to examine or even take into account such losses. The presence of both role strain and role conflict obviates the need to do so, for we are assured by this analytic that the person is indeed a complex of roles and nothing more. But at the very least, the modern person, the ontic version of Dasein, adds to its role set not so much nothing more, but Nothing more. And it is this Nothing that is the source of both Anxiety and regret. Roles offer up the potential for regression, remorsefulness, and regretfulness, taking place, as we have seen, both internally and externally. There is a Nothing alongside the set of social roles. It is, on the lighter and more ethical side of things, also the source of the neighbor. The spontaneous and unthinking action of the non-role and even anti-socius neighbor figure  comes out of Nothing and retreats there once the deed is done. Whatever resonates is a function of memory and thus easily slides into nostalgia, as we will see in part three below. Unthinking, yes, but what about? About one’s set of roles. The neighbor in fact does think, but this is space of the uncooked thoughts of humankind and human kindred. It is an I who is suffering and not a you, or a we and not a them. The neighbor has allies in others’ ability to emerge from the Nothing that all of us share tacitly together.

So it is not society that Dasein shares but society that shares Dasein. It shares it with all of the others, rather against its will. But this will is itself transmogrified into desire and hope, fear and resentment because society as the ‘generalizing institution’ par excellence, does not cleave itself in the direction of the neighborly. Instead, as we mentioned at the very beginning of our dialogue, it is fences and neighbors that correspond to one another and indeed bring each other into ontical being. Since part of the unthinking of the neighbor which accesses the ontology of humanity and not its epistemology – role sets and their appurtenances tell us ‘how we know what we know’ – is the absence of a need for meaning in the moment – it does not ask ‘why am I doing this or for what purpose?’ – it can only be the ‘socius’ that engages itself in the work of interpretation. In extreme forms, this engagement, necessary to every human being to a point, becomes nothing other than entanglement: “…we can actually speak of a ‘compulsion to extract the meaning’. Things don’t function any longer according to their own ‘objective’ meaning, but exclusively to express a ‘higher’ meaning, one pregnant with fate.” (Binswanger 1963:329). Minkowska adds that such persons “…become emotionally attached to objects, which leads to a love of order.” (cf. in Minkowski, op. cit:208-9ff). Bleuler’s ‘syntony’, also used adeptly and often by Minkowski, and Minkowski’s own ‘synchronism’ represent the delusional presence fostered by a ‘lack of attunement’ with objective reality (cf. Binswanger op. cit:338). Certainly modernity’s apparent lack of immediate and singular meaningfulness presents to us an existential and ethical challenge at once. But it must not be lost sight of that our own regressive remorse coupled with our eroded imaginations thinks that in prior epochs such meaningfulness was readily available. This is simply not the case, as meaning was just as much derived from institutions representing that ‘higher’ as it is today. Perhaps what is more truly at stake is our inability to imagine anything ‘higher’ that what we objectively see. Perhaps the problem is, put simply, objectivity itself.

As we will explore later, it is only a regressive nostalgia that sees in the past a truth that is no longer present. We are still what we are, Dasein and humanity more widely. Finite objective beings and individually, finitudinal being. Regression has its radically exemplary physical illness in epileptic-like events, and such an individual’s ‘saccharin personality’  – though we may wonder at such a framing – suggest the viscousness that gave rise to Minkowska’s idea of ‘glischroidy’, a conception that allows us to examine the ‘mystical’ character of the epileptic fit (cf. Minkowski op. cit:201ff). Shamanism had already explored this in a primordial manner, though ironically, as one of the first social roles. Epileptoid disturbances bear a similar family resemblance to those of schizoidism (ibid:204), but precisely in the manner that the neighbor bears some relationship to the socius. The first would not be distinguishable unless the second were ‘dominant’. The neighbor and the epileptic are spontaneous, the socius and the schizoid calculated. Within these last two, “…affectivity becomes fixed in an almost mechanical way on that to which it most closely corresponds: objects, groups, general ideas, etc.” (ibid:211, italics the text’s). Such phenomena, Minkowski notes, seem to operate ‘outside of themselves’ (ibid:212). And it is not only objects that come under the intense if obsessional scrutiny of the pathological role-oriented persona. The schizophrenic or the schizo-affective is also a socially constructed role, whereas the epileptoid in its encounter with the mystical – at least, according to previous modes of production and their cosmology – cannot be fully comprehended, let alone understood, by the wider ambit of mundane social relations. It is as if the role-geared persona of the they breaks down, its mechanism falters. This occurs no more than in those whose plurivocity of anxieties have utterly overtaken the Nothing and its resource of Anxiety proper: “With so many practical anxieties dogging him [ ] it is not strange that young research scientists dream unattainable dreams, live unrealistic lives, overwork desperately, and develop a monastic absorption which strains every human tie.” (Kubie 1960:265 [1957]). What is shared by both kinds of entanglement is the focus on the picayune and even the picaresque. One the one hand, we observe that much research, unless funded specifically toward a goal, usually and sadly a military or commodity goal, is so abstruse and arcane, or yet so mundane and even trivial that it carries the Dasein away into the margins of existence. It is curiosity cornered, focus fettered. No one is fully exempt from such charges of irrelevancy as scholarship demands a certain level of detail that other pursuits might eschew. But the tree tends to overtake the forest. With the ‘mystic’, on the other hand, we as well see this entrenchment which in turn “…reveals the basic features of all superstition: fixation upon the most inconspicuous, unimportant, and innocent details, and their elevation into the sphere of the decisive majesty of fate.” (Binswanger, op. cit:293).

Given that a significant portion of the North American population attends to at least some of this enshrinement of the picayune, it is no wonder that the archetypical detective of Conan-Doyle retains his immense popularity as a salient character in entertainment fictions; he is the ultimate master of taking the insignificant and making it utterly crucial to his investigations. But Sherlock Holmes stops short of sacralizing any of these details, indeed, of anything at all, and so he cuts the perfect figure, appealing to both our modern sensibility that nothing is in fact sacred as well as the older custom and sensibility that there is more going on than meets the mere eye. The scientist calculates this into her own inductive investigations – making bricks from the clay available – and the mystic simply knows when to look and what to look of ‘ahead of time, as it were. This latter tends toward deduction, however unscientific it may be in the end. Anything that elevates mere detail or coincidence into the profound may be said to be a regression: conspiracy theories, remaining superstitions enacted out of custom or habit, unwarranted suspicions, cynicism, even stoicism as a manner of keeping oneself aloof to others, and the like combine to give us the impression that modern life is more than it is. It isn’t.

To be sure, power corrupts still, but it does so in ways that anyone with or without power can understand. Behind the Masonic masks and Machiavellian masquerades lie simple intents and means. These both can be comprehended comprehensively under the rubric of maintaining control, authority, and the wielding of power to do so in any manner necessary to accomplish finite goals. Absolute values are part of the charade, and nothing more. The epileptoidal personality does not understand this simple relationship, and so we see these people scurrying into cliques, sects, even cults, who pretend to have the means to expose the truth of things if they do not already possess it themselves. This process is not, as many social scientists who study religion and social movements have claimed, a desperate ‘search for meaning’ or a meaningful existence. It is rather an escape from the meaning that already and always presents itself to Dasein. It is not a quest for vision but rather an effort at entanglement. It is a drive to replace indwelling with a theyness that is not as anonymous as is the everyday. It seeks to combine the old and the new – and thus is also an effort in nostalgia – given that such groups and societies, organizations and institutions function as if they were like the rest of us – the creationist drives a vehicle, for instance – while at the same time cradling an inner knowing that speaks of secret truths unavailable to the wider they. ‘Man’s escape from meaning’ might have been a worthy sibling to one of our most famous post-war essays.

It is of the greatest importance to recognize that most things are not important. We do this in our mundane lives, unreflectively, but as Heidegger notes, “Even when I do nothing and merely doze and so tarry in the world, I have this specific being of concerned being-in-the-world – it includes every lingering with and letting oneself be affected.” (1992:159 [1925]). Much of our day is taken up with things that only require a modicum of focus and intellect. This is not the problem. Our problem is rather the amount of time that such activities take to accomplish. Given that Dasein is historical being, and that we are, more basically, temporal creatures and organisms, this factor is decisive in any undertaking that seeks to make meaningful existence out of everyday life. Billy Joel encapsulates this tension in the lyric ‘I start a revolution but I don’t have time’. Most of us have been there in some nominal way. It may have been an aspiring vocation, a budding relationship, even an adulterous affair. New friends for adults are rare because of lack of time, child raising is a tenuous business because of the same. It is a stock phrase, used to ‘get out’ of anything at all: ‘I don’t have time’. It is almost universally accepted, almost as if the very invocation of time’s absence has an odd kind of sacredness to it. To lose time is to regress, so we think. We are being irresponsible in taking time ‘for ourselves’, as if we ourselves are somehow also absent when we do not take that time referred to. Dasein is always already present, in the world, just as is the world. They are co-authors of existence and anything taken away from either lessens their force while not vanquishing them. Nevertheless the trend is to avoid this elemental constitution of Dasein’s isness as much as we can. Speaking of Mounier’s work, Ricoeur notes that this “…‘type’ would rather express the exterior outline of a limitation, the failure of the personality rather than the idea of an internal plastic force: ‘We are typical only in the measure that we fail to be fully personal’.” (1965:152 [1955]). Such an exteriority is, as we have seen, both the home and the goal of regression, since it desires to move remorse into the social world, to make of it a role or an aspect of the socius rather than an irruptive injunction of the neighbor. The  mundane epileptoid seeks an insularity wherein she cannot be confronted by her conscience. In this, she is moved in the same direction as is the schizoidal person, but is, perhaps ironically, less calculating about it. The social epileptoid thereby is accepted with much more willingness into a sectarian environment, for instance, because she has demonstrated that her ‘condition’ is a sign of mystical movement in the affairs of men. Kristeva notes how such intentions fill up a space with contrivances and an ‘external presence’: “Its sensations fill Being with subjective information, whereas the impact of Being depersonalizes and derealizes  everything in its path, including the dizziness of sensations that for a brief moment we mistakenly believe are ‘ours’.” (1996:257 [1993]). Contrary to the view that suggests we are seeking meaning in our flight from meaningfulness, it is more correct to say that organizations specifically geared to create instant community function as ‘ours’ in this manner, whether or not they enjoin some other imagined realm, mystical, spiritual, or yet conspiratorial. At the end of the day, however, it matters little whether or not these contents be separated, for all groups of persons who claim to ‘know’ better are engaging in conspiracy themselves.

This shared solipsism sheds the social without doing the same to sociality. Any human group must still interact, but just here, populated by ‘misfits’ and even some rogues who desire to take advantage – the evangelical father who assaults his children in the name of ‘godly correction’ falls squarely into this category, for instance – there is a concerted effort to retreat from any wider meaning, as well as a great deal of energy put into taking umbrage when such a person is accosted from without. Binswanger links this reactionary and regressive subjectivity – which nonetheless seeks to hang its hat up on an archaic hook that in actual human history either never existed or was the province of a few antique villains who happened to be highly literate – to despair and even the thanatic drive: “A complete despair about the meaning of life has the same significance as man’s losing himself in pure subjectivity;, indeed, the one is the reverse side of the other, for the meaning of life is ever something trans-subjective, something universal, ‘objective’ and impersonal.” (op. cit:234). At the same time, the roots of existential psychology have it that we only find ourselves within the ambit of this wider meaning by ‘fleeing’ from ourselves and not ‘directly seeking’ ourselves out (cf. Heidegger 1962:174 [1927]). This is our ‘state-of-mind’, and thus must be linked to a disclosure and an encounter rather than a ‘discovery’ per se, as if Dasein was all about the hunt from the start. It is the relative ‘chanciness’ of how one finds oneself, as in a ‘mood’, that lends an abbreviated argument to the sense that fleeing isn’t such a bad thing after all.

But like anything else, all is well as long as there is moderation. The headlong flight from meaningfulness into perverse privacy is immoderate. In literature, this trope begins with Stendhal, wherein the hero’s identity  “…has withdrawn to an area not only different from, but hostile to public behavior. It is the area of interiority…” (Moretti 1987:85, italics the text’s). This figure represents internally the ‘social contradictions’ and non-linear histories that dominate modernity (cf. Adorno, op. cit:212). Yet one has to regress externally well before one puts up the curtains that block any observation of this new privacy. Ironically, it is mass man, the theyness of that exact public that turns away in this manner, flees from itself but not with a view to stand before itself once again. Moretti tells us that ‘equality in culture’ might destroy the old dogmatic authorities – and how many believed in these authorities in the way they demanded prior to the eighteenth century is perennially debatable, once again, due to the tiny amount of literates during these epochs – but it did not give rise to new elites (op. cit:102). Quite the contrary, as many an intellectual has since bemoaned, including a number of our key sources in this text. Even those who do arise may cheapen their instrumentation, blunt their critiques, by engaging in popularity contests: “Ideology rules by the mere fact of its having been brought into existence. In Rousseau, moral censorship is nationalized; the public censor becomes the chief ideologue.” (Koselleck 1988:166 [1959]). Certainly we see this today and not only due to the advent of mass digital media wherein one can be instantly ‘shamed’ or subject to other grotesque judgments. Such things appear more objective, and they are surly more external. Fittingly, if also ironically, they are one of the major variables in explicating the flight into the ‘interior’ by way of external regression. Sincere remorse seeks internal solace for the shame of it all, for not being able to face what one in fact desires to face: that very public and the wider world. We wish to return to our social place, for it is only from this jumping off point that our own ‘neighborliness’ can appear. The recluse cannot become the Samaritan, good or no.

In headlong flight, the longing to be ahead of others replaces Dasein’s innate being-ahead-of-itself. We enjoin a race to the bottom, as it were, shunning not merely our social role duties but more profoundly, the others by and through which we live at all. The disjuncture between living and existence allows for this, for though we no longer have a life to live, yet we remain. Dasein as the existing being does not vanish just because we will it to be so. Or do we? Perhaps it is rather thus: that we would prefer to live a life that enacts itself from itself alone. Perhaps we would prefer the absolute congruence between Dasein and personhood, something which contradicts the entirety of being-in-the-world for it loses all existential perspective on what I myself am facing and facing down; mine ownmost finitude and all that this implies.

And we think this desire to be wholly rational. Once again, it is immoderate, kindred with the notion to exhibit remorse instead of confronting it in an internality which is not merely an interior to itself. Externalized remorse, regretfulness, is not only a regression it is also a vanity. It seeks to value one’s self-pity as a meritorious endeavor, and perhaps also to commoditize it; witness the plethora of self-help books based on the autobiographical mishaps of this or that addict, sex worker, even murderer. One might include any partial or momentary homiletic also to be found in less excessive tracts of this genre, something this author has also imposed upon the reading public. ‘I was once this but now I am otherwise’; an archetypically Augustinian parabola that is nevertheless implied in Marcus Aurelius and perhaps even earlier texts. It represents a personalization of the Pauline doctrine of worldly transfiguration. The City of God can be read as merely the objective side of the transfigurational coin with the Confessions being that subjective. One also could be forgiven, to use a word advisedly, if one also wonders if the problem of subject/object also begins with these texts, or begins anew.

Immoderation, something that Augustine’s classical sources warn against, includes not only the externalization of properly internal dialogues – why indeed would anyone else care about my self-inflicted wounds, unless it would be taken for a trip to the circus? – but as well the vainglory of stating one’s case before an audience which is itself addicted to rationalization, simply because every member therein has also performed this sleight of in-handedness at one time or another: “Convulsively, deliberately, one ignores the fact that the excess of rationality, abut which the educated class especially complains and which it registers in concepts like mechanization, atomization, indeed even de-individualization, is a lack of rationality” (Adorno, op. cit:138). Surely it would be better if we kept ourselves to ourselves in this way instead? Not becoming a complete recluse, but never letting on that one’s own irrationality has taken such a monstrously public form that only that same anonymous and anonymized public can once again allow it access to the world. As if we were the benign version of the masterful criminal whom no one suspects is such, the truly rational person maintains his sociality whilst engaging in a self reflection that takes place in an internal dialogue.

This is what the interiority of Dasein is suited for. Such a comportment is benign insofar as it registers the needs of the wider body not wholly as its own, but as an important factor. We can be, according to the existentialist ethic, both public and private without taking the latter for an ontology. Indeed, if we do not engage thusly, we are “…left with a dreamy nobility, the memory of an unattainable presence, familiar thought forbidden, familial though lofty.” (Kristeva, op. cit:11). If the dream is an insight about our inner character and its lensed Anxiety, dreaminess is cheaper than the phantasm. It may even be serially orgiastic, amphetaminic, manic or depressive, it does not matter. Imagine being touched and only feeling the memory of touch previous. Such a delay would be tantamount to psychosis and would rapidly become unbearable so that one would prefer, in the end, not to have been touched at all: “…his dream of omnipotence comes true in the form of perfect impotence.”(Adorno, op. cit:57). Here, the utopia, always in the end utterly private and thus also a privation, forces the other into a thralldom of ‘fatefulness’. Noble in fantasy only, such a ‘dreaminess’ never awakens to the fact that other’s beings are never fully present, if at all present. Familial because most of our fantasies have indeed to do with family relations. There are few among us who have not wished for a ‘happier’ or more compassionate family, even if many of us do eventually overcome these deficits without entirely smothering them in lugubriously affective families of our own. But if our family of birth cannot attain the utopian desire and if we cannot force our current family to do so – once again, those who claim religion as their mantra attempt this petty imperialism more often than any other and have been perversely successful at willing it across the generations mainly due to the chance of repetition in the children the authoritarian personality engenders; that is, nothing to do with religion per se – we can at least retreat into the ‘personal life’ of the singular but also the highly alienated ‘me’. Our consciousness has been desacralized from the only thing modernity has to offer it; a position of banal ‘being as part of the world’. So we tell ourselves. But this too is, in the end, a mere rationalization of a hyper-rationality that suffuses into our souls. We have internalized mass politics along with everything else. The much vaunted ‘interiority’ of the romantic period bears a disconcerting resemblance to the external world after all, and was this not Stendhal’s point? At a time when the new capital was ‘in the saddle’, with the birth of the bourgeois class, with the citizenry, the professional military, and the public service of the kind of government we today would recognize as our direct forebear, what then of the equally new person, the individual?

Speaking of a sleight of what is supposedly already and always in-hand. Dasein manifestly does not exist for the sake of the state or yet its place in statehood. Dasein faces a state only inasmuch that my death is mine ownmost possibility. The state as the successor to the church, the two ‘evils of evil’, does not face death. We have seen in our own time not only the afterlife of god, but also, in a rather more pedestrian manner, that of the church. This has appeared to answer the call of the alienated individual. But one cannot truly know a ghost: “Thus for the secularized consciousness the political myth has become one answer to the problem of our epoch’s relationship to death – an answer arising from the distorted relation to the meaning of life of a consciousness at one and the same time deprived of faith but intensified in its sense of individuality by its position with the atomized mass.” (Plessner 1957:244 [1950]). Given the apparatus of technologized media and communication, the awareness of – but not the knowledge about – diverse others and their assumed desires, and the opportunism of those whose own inner alienation drives the quest for public power, the myth of modernity is in reality far more dangerous than any myth the church ever was able to put forward. In addition, the residue of the state’s predecessor lingers in some regions, used now as a rationalization to bond disparate persons together as if one could still hear the calling to a divinely sanctioned crusade. As Goodman puts it, “It is the great power of history to keep alive lost causes, and even to revivify them.” (1960:360 1956]). In a Weberian note, Ricoeur adds, “…it is no longer the institution which justifies violence, it is violence which engenders the institution by redistributing power among States and classes.” (op. cit:241). And those who seek to possess and thence wield this new power are deluded on both fronts, even as they delude the rest of us. Power cannot truly be possessed; one cannot keep it to oneself, as if the dynamic of politics were like the engine of a high performance automobile that one foreswears engaging at the green light. As well, one does not in reality wield power as if it were an actual sword. One makes decisions in the light of other variables. One can possess authority, but not power. One can wield force, but not power. The modern nation-state, which seeks above all to provide a benign-looking cover for the continuation of public inequity without involving itself in private iniquity – and without losing its grip on the mindset that it is the most advanced human political organization known; sophisticated, yes, but advanced? – advances itself as the total institution that can ameliorate the ‘iron cage’ of contemporary life. Retirement pensions respond to wage-slavery. Health care responds to critical illness, counseling to sorrow, welfare to suffering, and as far as the enduring problem of spontaneous joy goes, well, that’s to each her own.

Beyond all of this, however, is the sense that the state can confer upon each individual a singular statehood in citizenship without making everyone into exactly the same thing. Thus “…total institutions do not look for cultural victory. They effectively create and sustain a particular kind of tension between the home world and the institutional world and use this persistent tension as strategic leverage in the management of men.” (Goffman 1960:454 [1959]). The paternalistic state, of late made more casual and distant as the ‘nanny state’ – a further decoy as to its actual character; as if one could hire and fire it at will and the most egregious thing of which it is guilty is some form of backseat driving – seeks another kind of victory; that of Dasein’s insistence on its flight from itself. This is not about culture per se, but it does involve the kind of existence that has been known to create culture over against institutions like the church and state. In its striving to make persons into citizens, the state exposes its true needs. At its authentically most egregious, the state attempts to regress mature being into an undeveloped form of itself. In doing so it uses “…the logic of sadomasochism. It is the love of hate, the hatred of love, persecution, humiliation, and delectable sorrow. There is no specific social means for escaping this logic, for the whole of social life is contained within it.” (Kristeva 1996:157 [1993]). The Reich is held up to account as the recent archetype of this extremity, but is it not telling that in every victorious post-war state, the ‘management skills’ of the Reich were adopted to some degree? If it is correct to say that culture does not engender the neighbor, it is also just as correct to note that within the space of culture, acts, events, artifacts and objects do appear as signs of the neighbor’s continued existence, furtive perhaps, but insistent. The aesthetic object is well known to provide that same spontaneous and irruptive force that rends social life and its ‘means’ away from state management. Hence the need for censorship from time to time, speaks the state, even in the realm of art. These days, it is galleries and other venues themselves that practice a form of self-censorship, and no doubt certain kinds of writers do as well. All of this in ‘liberal’ democracies. Would it then be illiberal to suggest that along with the scandalously ignorant evaluation of each younger generation as the safe harbor for ‘anything goes’ – Cole Porter’s jest is lost to our overly and overtly sensitive hearing in our day – that our response is yet more scandalous? That we scurry to cover our thoughts over with the fashion for the absolutely inoffensive? Could it be that the absolute authority of the benign corrupts absolutely? “And if any sceptic of the kind who denies the truth, factically is, he does not even need to be refuted. In so far as he is, and has understood himself in this Being, he has obliterated Dasein in the desperation of suicide; and in doing so, he has also obliterated truth.” (Heidegger 1962:271 [1927], italics the text’s).

An excerpt from Blind Spots: the altered perceptions of Anxiety, Remorse and Nostalgia. forthcoming in 2019.