Self and Afterlife

Self and Afterlife (an exercise in existential extension)

            While not all conceptions of the afterlife have as their outcome a continued existence of the same selfhood, nor do all boast that a new form of existence will be conferred upon it if it is conceived of as the same, all have as their essence the idea of the extension of life in some form. The afterlife is therefore an exercise in existential extension. When my book On the Afterlife (2012) was published, I realized that though I had provided a chronological and cross-cultural analysis of the structure of the afterlife itself, I had paid scant attention to the vehicle which was supposed to undergo these surrounding alterations in ontological space. I deferred to my title quite literally and thus overlooked the entire reason why such a concept should have taken its enduring place in the human imagination. With some sense of this, let me now make a brief attempt to further the relevant investigation.

            In the cosmology of the social contract, insofar as it can be known today, the soul’s immortality was cyclical, mirroring the concept of both time and seasonal nature. An indefinite number of corporeal lives had been lived, with the same stretched out ‘ahead’ of one, constituting the future. Intensely logical and even rational, the sense that since life itself exhibited no change over mortal memory and far beyond, pending upon how primordial this first concept of the afterlife was – we can only remind ourselves that the toolkit of Homo Erectus remained unchanged for approximately two million years – just so, the life of the soul should be an exercise in the eternal return of the same, in Eliade’s sense of course and not so much in Nietzsche’s. It was of especial moment when an elder passed just before an infant was born, as this was taken as a sign that the same soul had willed itself to return almost immediately. There was thus also inferred that the pool of souls was quite limited, because the population load in material life never seemed to grow beyond a certain amount; one that could, if not be known exactly, predicted most proximately. A moment of witty scripting in the indigenous Haida film Edge of the Knife (2018), has a youth asking after who were the past lives of so-and-so, and an adult relative replying with, ‘oh, you don’t want to know’.

            No doubt, one might suggest. And for perhaps ourselves as well, presuming that the ontological structure of life and death has not been further transformed by the appearance of history proper. This original idea, that of unevaluated return, must have animated the imagination of the vast majority of our species existence heretofore. But with changes to the population structure, the appearance of surplus, and thence the growth of communities, social hierarchies, and their alteration of subsistence strategies, the realm of ideals as well shifted. In the East, some twelve thousand years ago, the early emergence of agricultural sedentism propelled an alteration in the afterlife’s conception. The soul still returned, but this time, in its sojourn in the afterlife, it was evaluated. This is the basis for both reincarnation and the caste system. One’s ‘karma’ may not be sufficient to rise in the stratigraphy of life as a whole, nor yet in the social hierarchy of cultural life. The jape about one ‘coming back as a dog or a rat’ must have been well taken. But by the time sedentary settlements and agrarian subsistence patterns had fully emerged in the Near East some ten thousand years ago, the conception of the afterlife underwent further and even more major changes. No longer did the soul return at all and, after being evaluated, spent the remainder of its own indefinite existence either in the underworld or in a better, lighter space. The first agrarian conception, that of evaluated return, is most famously associated with Hinduism, while the second, that of evaluated continuation, with ancient Egypt.

            It was this second idea which, historically, became predominant, with the spread of Near Eastern irrigation civilizations and their associated and serial empires, and thus inspired a raft of variations on its basic theme. Who was to do the evaluation, the character of the rewards and punishments accruing to its outcome, the framing of the contrasting spaces adjoined in the afterlife, heaven versus hell, for instance, and so on, were all subject to a great deal of improvisation and alteration, given that all of these ideas were first to be found within still oral cultures. Only with the advent of written script, some seven to eight thousand years ago, did these notions begin to take on a more definite and detailed form and formulation. By the time we enter our own historical period, with the appearance of the three great second-age agrarian world systems, the conception of evaluated continuation becomes quite well known. The radical shift occurs in how one is evaluated, and not that one is or one is not, nor that one’s soul does not return in any case, with the appearance of forbearance as an ethical precept in the East and its Western equivalent, forgiveness. These kinds of ideas are, in a sense, reverberations of the primordial sentiment that whatever one was or did in this or that specific life, that one should begin again with a clean slate. The difference is that one does not return to an embodied state to start anew, the soul rather being ‘cleansed of its sins’ and entering a new form of extended existence elsewhere.

            The career of this most fascinating concept does not, however, end there. Even in modernity, our finite and godless cultural sensibility has taken the afterlife to yet another self-conception, that of unevaluated continuation. Not only does this fill in the final cell in the four-square model proposed and detailed in my 2012, it suggests that we are still willing to stake our claims to consciousness itself, at least in part, upon the idea that it somehow continues bereft of body and freed from the mind’s sole manufacture. Or perhaps this is after all the difference between brain and mind, and thus for this same reason they cannot be precisely ‘mapped’ onto one another. There is now no judgment of any kind, which also implies that the structure of the spaces of the afterlife has also been changed, collapsed into a single undifferentiated plenum where the ‘sky’s the limit’, as it were. The final line of script in what for many remains the best of science fiction fantasy entertainment speaks to this only half-rational and utterly unempirical sensibility, thereby contradicting, at least somewhat, the modernist ethics of the Star Trek franchise. That it is set in the context of the weekly upper decks poker game serves the contrasting reality that only within known existence can one attain one’s ideals, and that ‘fate is just the weight of circumstances’.

            Yet that weight itself must have been known as soon as our most antique ancestors, presumably perhaps even the Australopithecines and yet before, were able to consciously cognize the difference between the quick and the dead, and thence reflect upon its existential implications. In that we are not ontologically superior to those our first incarnations tells us of perhaps both elements summing each of our conceptions of the afterlife; that the this-life must end and yet life itself continues. If we are romantics at heart, we might somehow will ourselves to an active role in the next-life, and the next, or, if we are, as I imagine the species to ultimately be, not content with merely human form, we might by contrast will ourselves to become in fact something more than we have ever thought to be. It is by way of this more that humanity has evolved and progressed alike to both possessing a sense of the indefinite, the futural, as well as the infinite, the cosmic. Only by holding onto past conceptions of the afterlife do we continue to flirt with the apocalypse, for the unexpected fifth wheel in our house of existential extension is the one in which we are reduced to the star-stuff from which we originally came.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, religion, aesthetics, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Pursuit of Unhappiness

The Pursuit of Unhappiness: Entanglement and the Ethics of Öffentlichkeit

            The disclosedness of the ‘anyone’, that which is made publicly or yet made for publicity, even if this is personalized, may be thought of as the converse to Eigentlichkeit, or authenticity. One is of Das Man, the other is of Dasein. Öffentlichkeit is that which exposes everything as the amalgamated nothing that it is. This is not of course Nothing, which is the presence of the uncanny and which is, moreover, the source of anxiety for Dasein, and neither is it nothingness, which is, in turn, an imagined state of non-being for which there is no real-time equivalency. As long as I am conscious of my own existence, even as part of something which seeks to negate me, I am something, or something-or-other. This aspect of Heidegger’s self-seeking is only an aside, as it were; a kind of throw-away category that puts up the pretense of seeking the self whereas it is actually a symptom of the search for a selfhood entangled. One cannot be disclosed as either a non-being or as a public thing – one a nothing and the other a ‘something-or-other’ – in the same sense as we have just noted. This ‘or-otherness’ exposes me as nondescript, as unworthy of further examination because I could just as well be anything, or anything else.

            We do say to the other, ‘it was nothing’, when she notices we have been rattled by indeed something, but in such cases, if authentic, the ‘something or other’ is a space-filler designed to provide a moment wherein I can try to discern just what it was that was disturbing to me. For it cannot have been simply nothing – which is why Heidegger capitalizes this term; to make it into a thing or a something – and yet if we cannot identify it in either the panoply of the world-as-it-is or even in our imagined worlds, let alone as the nondescript anything of the Öffentlichkeit, then it must have been the Nothing of essential anxiety, the fullest presence of non-presence, which itself presents to us an overfullness of Being. In this second term, the capital denotes not so much a transcendental otherness which is alien to us and radical to history, but perhaps instead, and in its stead, the Gestalt expressing the entirety of our life, held in a moment which brushes by us and does not linger. The publicity of being as part of the anyone, the self which seeks to be nothing like itself but rather anything else, sometimes quite literally, also does not tarry but instead malingers. The shadow of being, what I have analyzed as the ‘penumbra of personhood’, tarries alongside us as does our actual, physical shadow, when the light is right. Note too that Heidegger refers to the ‘lighted space of being’ implying that only here will we be accompanied by our authentic shadow, rather than being engulfed by the umbrous atonality of the public way.

            All of this is not to say that the self is not inherently both social and historical. In this other sense, its own undertaking to be other than itself involves the othering of the other, specifically, and not ‘the others’ as stand-ins for selves within the open space of the public, and not the Other, which is an expression of Nothing personified in some cursive manner, in a nocturnal arabesque or a suffering serenity. I cannot grasp the irruptive force of the Nothing, and it presents ‘itself’ in a way to which even my imagined state of non-being cannot cleave. This is not mine ownmost death which has appeared before me like some vivisected visitation, but perhaps it is more like bearing witness to myself as I might yet be; what is the character of my own dead soul? Enduring some torpor of tantalus, I blink at an apparition; shrouded in black framing a face grotesque with expressionist neon, sorrow alone in its gape, but fury in its maw; is this who I am at base, and in baseness? What kind of parallax does such a scrying mirror possess? I look into it with the proverbial darkling aspect and see nothing other than myself as both the nothing and the other at once.

            And just as Weber intoned that charisma cannot appear authentically in modernity, so too we are given the sense that the Nothing cannot be part of the public. Hence anxiety as well will never assail us as long as we forget ourselves within the midst of an entangling skein of publicity. Das Man has neither a self nor is a person. It appears to be the answer to the Other for it too has no gender, no age nor exterior aspect which can be said to be fair or handsome, ugly or repulsive. It is the fraudulent Shadow just as is the Other the one authentic. Just so, any intimacy we gather round ourselves in the open space of the public is as the false Syzygy. Anyone will do, and especially so, the anyone who will do anything. In no way am I transfigured by this general disclosedness of ‘the others’; no, I am merely transposed, becoming one of these others without the directed demand of a liminal otherness and outside of the rite by which I pass over into the now lit space of other-worlding.

            Unhappiness is better than sorrow; it feels easier. It is something rather than a lingering presence of the Nothing, and it is unrelated to joy, which I cannot ever feel lest I feel ‘all sorrows as well’. So, I pursue unhappiness by being other to mine ownmost beingness, but only through the anonymous tranpositional dynamic which is both the herald and hallmark of Öffentlichkeit. Media confirms my ‘participation’ in this hallows, taste regimes vouchsafe its consumption, the formal functioning of the generalized other abets it – even if this essential selfhood in its more informal and thus less conscious manner is also necessary to become human and be ‘in’ a society at all – and my flight from mine ownmost presence-unto-death absolves it of its patent fraudulence. It too constitutes for Dasein an ‘evil of evil’, for its entanglement of what is closest to me, making it seem that it is only a part of what the anyone can grasp in its entirety and within which the anything can occur at my desire but against my will. One might rationalize at this point by noting that any time I ‘pursue’ something or other I fall into the need for the something-or-other, and this could also be interpreted as part of Heidegger’s sense of what ‘falling’ is about. Here, as a converse to the above, anything will do and especially the anything that will do anyone.

            But the very fact that anxiety can be decoyed from the Eigentlichkeit of its own irruptive presence – anxiety is the interiority of Otherness in its mode of being and being-expressed – reminds us that we cannot lose it, just as we cannot be without our own shadow. Anxiety is in fact the key to authenticity, for it knows that even sorrow is passing just as joy can resonate beyond the equally passing public, turning action into act and thus Dasein back into its own thrown project.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, aesthetics, religion, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Fiddler on the Hot Tin Roof

Fiddler on the Hot Tin Roof (The Media Minstrels)

            The fact that persons of Jewish descent dominate the culture-producing industries, both high and low, is the result of historical happenstance alone. Any other inference is not merely Anti-Semitic, it is suggestive of the very ressentiment that is once again building its political franchise. This ‘undergrowth’, as the narrator to the mostly excellent documentary The Architecture of Doom refers to it in its closing moments, is no longer simply underfoot, to the side, or creeping along unseen beneath a cultured canopy. That Jesus was himself Jewish, or at the least, was perceived as such whatever his paternal pedigree, should not have provided the Anti-Semite with an apical ancestor. But Jewish colleagues have told me that they still overhear, or are even told to their faces, that ‘The Jews killed Jesus’ and so on. Doubtless a personal retribution on the part of a few well-placed priests, the crucifixion hangs itself up on another kind of cross; one that is political through and through. The sandal has been on the other foot ever since. For ideally, being well-placed in a culture means having culture in the first place.

            Due to European property laws, as Marx and Engels pointed out in On the Jewish Question, the diaspora was funneled into service sector trades, including all those associated with accoutrement and requiring consistent and trans-national trade networks, such as jewelry, precious metals, and financing. It should be recalled that the first significant loan in history occurred when the Black Prince borrowed heavily in order to back a war, with the agreement that this debt would be repaid with interest. Needless to say, it was not. What were a group of Italian Jews with not even a militia in their employ going to do about it? By the nineteenth century, people of Jewish descent had become the leading indicators of a globalizing culture that would move from Mendelssohn to Mahler and from Marx to Freud. But at the very moment that ‘the Jews’ seemed to populate the corridors of culture, since, once again, they were barred from politics – mimicking the earlier division of labor between landed luxury and mere luxury items – there arose against this presence, both artistic and intellectual which appeared from above, a vicious counterpoint from below.

            In the Reich’s propaganda, the culture critic is singled out. This was easiest road, the lane of least resistance, for the critic produces in the criticized nothing other than a resentment. Shaw expressed it most famously, and most concisely, showing the critic to be nothing more than a eunuch beside the lovers’ bed. Akin to those who teach, those who can’t do, criticize. Indeed, I have encountered such criticism, resentful in itself, and have found myself saying, ‘write your own book, my friend,’ knowing full well that they were incapable of even that. The priests in the temple, driven from it by some neo-Hebrew and seemingly self-appointed messiah, are the truer apex of this jilted genealogy. Certainly, they got their revenge, but just as certainly, the history of Anti-Semitism, in its Euro-American context at least, begins there. And thus, and thence it is the culture critic who is the one who ‘passes his arrogant judgments’, and represents a wider ethnic group or ‘race’ who is devoid of ‘the very organ of culture’. Yet this could be said, and was said, of anyone who was a critic, Jew or non-Jew alike. The Reich focused nothing more, and nothing other, than an already present resentment, lensing it into an authentic ressentiment. Ironically, it was the artist who was first to heed this new politics, the intrusion of which into his absolutely apolitical, or even anti-political, realm, supposedly transcendent of anything petty at all, was uncommonly resented and rejected heretofore.

            The artist and the intellectual, the scientist and the lawyer, and above all others, so to speak, the physician, flocked to the NSDAP. Doctors as a profession boasted the highest party-member rates, partly due to the new regime’s promotion of eugenics, but also due to the clear-cutting of all Jewish medical professionals. The fact that many prominent members of the culture-producing sectors were of Jewish descent was simply an outcome of their heritage being prevented from pursuing other vocations was somehow lost. Of course, if any specific social group is targeted as being fit only for this or that, they will, over time, excel at it. They will, over time, develop networks internal which favor their in-group participation in a more longitudinal manner. The Nazis were adept at rewriting Germanic history into myth, but Hitler himself had more personal reasons for doing the same with his own biography. Perhaps it was so, that when he took in a performance of Rienzi in 1904, this was the ‘beginning of it all’, but surely it was three years later, with the rejection letter from the Vienna School of Art that set his resentment in motion. How many other art schools were there in Europe at the time? If one was 21st on the list of the very best, where only the top 20 are invited, one would think one would with some clearance actually get into a number of others. This fact too, was lost.

            Even so, it is not entirely fair to say that once those of Jewish descent were purged from cultural production only the mediocre remained. Otto Dix, an anti-Nazi expressionist, is a shining counter-example, one of the great artists of the interwar period and as ‘Aryan’ as they came. And even Hitler himself was a competent limner and a well-studied architect. But his real genius lay in graphic design. To this day, no symbology widens the eyes as does the suite of media bearing the half-twisted swastika; banners, flags, uniforms, standards, letterhead and many others. A whole-souled acolyte of Wagner, whose own anti-Semitism is well-known if potentially equivocal – in its singling out of Jewishness as an instance of the wider problem of ethnicity as a regression, for instance – Hitler became his own impresario. For the German of culture, it was clear that while those who were Jewish had indeed contributed mightily to European dominance, it was equally transparent that Gentiles could carry the torch without their help. Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Goethe, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger; well, yes, we’ve got some game after all.

            And thus today? The same fomenting fulminations are afoot as were present in the 1920s, this time in the United States and not so much in Germany. The same resentment building itself into a movement of political ressentiment, the same mistrust of government and its minions, the same disdain and mockery of those who create in the arts, the same ignorance of literature and of philosophy – ‘only God knows the truth of things’, that is, their God – and this reiterative refrain begins in the 1980s. Yet we must ask, and at this very moment, is not the same blithe and sometimes even blatant sense of the blasé evident in how those of Jewish descent who do dominate the modern mass media in all of its lower cultural forms, as well as the now much-less targeted high culture, as well a reprise of the same attitude and self-perception present in the bygone Berlin and Vienna sets? Seinfeld defending Israel at Duke? Convocation from an elite culture-producing space, its design and entire look mindful of nothing other than a smallish party rally, with not the king but rather the court jester presiding, cuts a rather febrile figure to my mind. A mimicry and a mockery at once, such events result in some Lovecraftian hybrid, a ‘thing that should not be’.

            Beyond the specific spaces, behind the publisher’s closed doors, within the select circles of Kultur if not the heated tin roof of society itself, the coming victims of Holocaust II await their less chosen fates. And yet this is the happenstance of history repeating itself, without grace and outside of a wider Zeitgeist. People of Jewish descent know, more than any of the rest of us, that there is no Zionist conspiracy. It would then seem prudent if they did not continue to give the impression that there were.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

This is War

This is War (The difference between forgetting and suppressing)

            At seventeen, my father left his home in Winnipeg for Halifax, lied about his age, and signed on with the Royal Canadian Navy, participating in the tail end of the Battle of the Atlantic. His act was one of both liberation and defiance, given his directly Mennonite heritage. Serving in the military was the most radical thing someone like him could have done at that time. The navy nonetheless gave him a non-combat position on the supply ship HMCS Provider. Still at mighty risk, her crew was not expected to fight per se. This satisfied the faith requirement of a background he had sought to reject, not on any theological grounds of course, but rather those filial, for youth, a much more common conscientious objection. We are fortunate today in Canada and elsewhere that our youth do not have to make those kinds of decisions in that kind of way, at least for now.

            But the filial bond-cum-bondage yet weighs heavily upon youth. The available response of the moment are the protests on university campuses scattered around much of the democratic world. To participate in them must make young people feel like they are standing up for something, as well as for themselves, which is likely the deeper import of such actions. And while it is true that war is a horrifying thing that no wholly sane person would ever wholly endorse, protesting against Israel, in this case, might be likened to someone who protested against Britain just before the time my father joined up to defend her and her allies. And to those who suggest that Israel has ‘gone too far’ in their response to being attacked, we can only remind such persons that there is in fact no such thing in warfare.

            Indeed, history tells us that the mistake is always the converse; not going far enough at the right time. The Reich made several of these errors, incomprehensibly though indeed, thankfully, when their usual tactical acumen seemed to break down. But in each case something else was at work. Their first mistake – such a phrase might have been a lesser title in a multi-volume Churchillian history epic – consisted of not annihilating the Allied Expeditionary Force hemmed in at Dunkirk, something the German forces could easily have accomplished, Their general ground command thought it unworthy to engage in such slaughter – though Göering and his air force did not – and refused to finish in this way, since the actual fight was over. The second occurred when, on the face of it, inexplicably, the Luftwaffe stopped attacking at the very point the RAF was out of resources, thereby ending the Battle of Britain. Here, Hitler had suggested moving air units to the East in preparation for Barbarossa, and also had new planes and pilots sequestered for this larger affair to come. The decision was premature, and would come back to haunt the Reich soon enough. One can say the entire campaign tactic, attacking from the air, was flawed in the first place, given that Britain would have succumbed through an all-out U-boat embargo and undersea attack on its large naval surface ships, thereby opening up the channel for an amphibious assault. The third error was directly attributed to Hitler himself, in disallowing Guderian to take Moscow before Kiev had fallen and the seasonal weather changed, abruptly and radically. The fourth and final error was also Hitler’s alone; attacking Kursk in Operation Citadel. Preserving what was then still the finest and best-equipped army in the world, even if also by then with no prospect of striking themselves a decisive blow against Russia, would likely have given the Reich enough lag time to develop their own atomic bomb.

            These are all errors of omission, if you will. To leave one member of Hamas standing is, for the Israeli Government at this juncture, both an admittance of a kind of defeat, but as well, an invitation to restore and restock that military group, patent enemies of Israel and of the Jewish people in general. And so their assault continues unabated, with the reality of both heightening suffering and misery, but also the risk of creating the image of becoming a political pariah in the eyes of the world. But the world is not at stake in Palestine, and it is perhaps too easy to stand back and direct as if it were. What is rather at stake is, aside from the existence of the Jewish state itself, is our perception of what constitutes war once it is well underway. If a young person were to ask me, does anything then go, anything at all?’ both the short answer and the long answer consist of one word. Only through either a dated sense of honor – Dunkirk – conflicting goals – Britain – or deliberate incompetence coupled with narcissism – The East in general – does warfare pause itself. Originally a local error, the expelling of payload over London because the Heinkels involved couldn’t find their assigned targets, rapidly degenerated into a town-for-town destruction, culminating in the firestorms of Hamburg, Cologne, and Dresden amongst other lesser lights. Did Hamas not understand, when they struck first, that they would invite a terrible reckoning upon the people they claim to represent? And unlike a few air commanders of one specific bomber group, Hamas never supposed it made an error.

            If the human conscience tells us to stop, history tells us to finish. History is not merely written by the victor, or at least, political and military history tends to be, so it is also lived, or at least, lived better. The Reich was a few tactical moments away from world domination, their stated goal. And Israel itself has been the lucky winner in at least one other historical moment of its own short history, the moment wherein the Syrian armored columns actually broke through all Israeli lines in the 1973 war. Their commander was so astonished that he disbelieved his own sudden, and total, success, and therefore turned back instead of barreling straight into Tel Aviv. The history of warfare is filled with ‘what ifs’, hence providing endless fascination for the dilettantes who enjoy war gaming, but this is a mere aside afforded by backreading. Yet given this iterative theme, modern states have equipped themselves with foolproof, failsafe, weapons which, once launched, have both no need of, but also no recourse for, second-guessing decisions in medias res. And this condition, in which every member of the human species lies and is compelled to live, as well as all life on earth as collateral, is surely more profoundly protested by the youth of today, who have apparently bodily forgotten it.

            For nuclear weapons represent the ultimate ‘all-in’ approach. With their possession, there is no holding back, no lack of finish, no quarter given or taken. And they serve another, perhaps more symbolic purpose; to represent the essence of warfare without the need to express its reality. For this lack of care, this radical recklessness and this revolutionary ruthlessness, is war, and thus each of us might heed the always sensible option not to start one in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Friction of Faction

The Friction of Faction (and the fiction of fraction)

            It must be a burden to be the same, to bear the mark of sameness rather than that of difference. That I am as another, and thus the expectations that this other has of me are merely that which I have of her and nothing else, must appear uninteresting at the least, if not an outright waste. For who am I that I must be thou? Am I only thus, is that what I am fit for, fit to be? And who are you to make such a demand upon me? At once, who am I to declare myself as the goal of your action, or of your very being? Sameness is our human condition, but it is one which is filled with shame and resentment. And so, we seek the difference within the sameness, the diversity in the homogeneity. And we do so with a desperation which has of late become a fetish. What once was the default – this small group is ‘the people’, is what is human, and everyone else is something else – in our time becomes a contraption. If the default was a fault of misrecognition and parochialism, a severe and ultimate understatement of the species-reality, then is it surely not the error of modern global society that we tend to overstate our case?

            Or is it the same question merely scaled? For in declaring difference to be the de facto condition, over against sameness, are we not reiterating, though with by far a more cosmopolitan sensibility, the original fiction of faction? Distinguishing ourselves based on inherited traits, phenotypic and not accrued, and then even, perversely, remarking upon their degradation – this repeats, though in an obverse manner, the antique atmosphere which surrounded the stigmata, the ‘mark’ which denoted a slavish caste and thus nature; one has cancer, one is a cancer survivor and so on – appears not only shallow but as well too easy a thing. It avoids the question, as we have stated elsewhere, of the ‘who’; who am I? Such avoidance behavior seems the norm in our day, and we must then ask, why am I as a person something to so stringently avoid? Is it because I fear being reduced to sameness? And if so, what would this imply? Would I thence vanish without a trace of my being anything at all, simply because of my own humanity?

            In a society which is structurally unequal, and wherein opportunity odds are unevenly distributed, many, if not most, might appear to have small means afforded to them to distinguish themselves. We each of us might have a small circle, and are ‘known’ to be this or that within it, but are unknown beyond it. Schutz has famously outlined the topography of the social selfhood. My knowledge, of myself, of others, of society and of history etc. can be mapped, with sufficient accuracy but also intended metaphor, as with all cartographic representations. From the highest peak of intimacy – never quite closing in upon itself since there are things, perhaps unconsciously understood, once again, by way of distended and sometimes absurdly drawn-out metaphor, of which we are otherwise unaware – to what Schutz referred to as the ‘hinterland’ of awareness, and beyond which lies only the unknown for now, or, perhaps yet the absolutely unknowable, my Dasein is surrounded on all sides by relative degrees of knowledge and ignorance. The two are by no means mutually exclusive and, as people change throughout the life course, I can also say with an odd confidence that all the confidences in the world do not permit me to state with utter certainty either self-knowing or comprehension of the other, no matter how intimate. ‘I thought I knew you’ is thus a cliché plaintiff, whether appearing in a lover’s tiff or deathbed confessional, between trusted work colleagues or less trusted political bedfellows. In a word, knowledge of the other is not so different than is self-knowledge.    

            This is so because at base, we remain after all the same thing, to ourselves and to others, and it is the headlong flight from this species essence that entangles Dasein in and as a skein of social roleplays and normative presumptives. The fraction of what we do know, about ourselves, others, or again the world at large, must be ledgered against what we merely tell ourselves we know. This fraction contains its own fictions. The ‘personal fable’ is, anthropologically speaking, perhaps the most common. It can be considered a cultural item only in social organizations known to practice it in their sameness, and through some thematic variations, to indeed assert this sameness as a general intent. I am not the ‘son of eagle’ in order to make fraternal a cultural whole, but rather as a fabulous construction, though one vouchsafed by a Cree shaman, which reasserts my individuation. But if I were an indigenous person, this mark would be an effort toward the homogenous. Yet in confirming my identity in his cosmology, this shaman was not thus conferring upon me an indigenous status. For him, it merely affirmed, with some astonishment on his part, as I recall, the wider reach of forces that are generally beyond the human ken. This is a relic of the universe enchanted, and has no place in modernity. He knew this, I knew this, and yet.

            Even so, the rush to difference is itself majority fictional. The camaraderies of the faction, the dividing up of what is in camera already a clique – why would one care to ‘identify’ someone else at all; are we now all our own detectives? Is the prevalence of detective fiction in our entertainment giving us a sense that we must not only own our own actions but as well with some visage ashamed own up to them? – are artificial in the face of living and dying the both. And the conflict that seems also so desired and desirable and which can only be attained by overdoing factionalism, of making fractious the fractions of our fellow humans who would surely, in an ideal world, be more like us than anything else – the other headlong flight in evidence, that away from traditional social roles in non-Western cultures, is testament to this – is mainly a fictional conflict. In fiction, if there is no conflict there is no story. What then, we might imagine, would be the story of humankind without that same conflict? What would people truly live for? Is this why the yet-radical ethics of the Koinonium is still so rarely in evidence?

            But history is not fantasy, even if it too contains its fraction of fiction. Reality, social through and through when it comes to human perception, is also not a fiction. That it sometimes rests upon fictive kinships is no argument against its reality function. The sleight of hand of fiction is that though it is not real, it comes across as if it were. There is no real danger here as long as we keep our heads; this there is a story and this here is history, this over here is theater and this right here is dramaturgically inclined social relations, this out there is fantasy and this in here is who I am, who I really am. And even if I cannot know myself in the entirety of my being – I change over time, memory falters, pride is present, the pitch and lens of the generalized other shifts gradually across generations – nevertheless at any one time I retain the Gestaltkreis of a whole self, the personhood who I am, mine ownmost being. Is this being so paltry that I daily seek to forget it, avoid its presence, fictionalize it and divide it into fractions of itself, join it to external faction, seek the ‘friction of the day’? No, rather it is our inability to accept ourselves for who we are as human beings that promotes the fiction that we can be something else. Yet each of our replacements contains much more phantasmagoria than was originally self-present. We have in fact inverted the cartographia mundi of the self, and now dwell in the very deepest of trenches, unseen as a being, unseeing as a person. Perhaps the quite intended paradox of desiring identity difference is such that we can no longer be identified at all.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, social theory, religion, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Donate your Brain to Pseudo-Science!

Donate Your Brain to Pseudo-Science! (a tax-free way to lose your mind)

            It is always less taxing not to think. The unthinking person can still take action in the world. The mundane sphere presents few opportunities for thought in any case, so one need not generally bother with it at all. We only need learn to use our technology, in the same manner as we have already, most of us, learned to apply norms and act according to the mores of the day. We do not, in either case, need to know the ins and outs, in any great or grave detail, of either Techne or Hexis. For the one, this is the job of the natural sciences, for the other, those social. The German translator of J.S. Mill’s System of Logic bequeathed to the discourse the lasting if unquiet distinction between ‘Natur’ and ‘Geist’ in providing the prefixes for Mill’s original sense of ‘natural’ and ‘moral’. Mills used the term ‘moral’ in his ‘moral sciences’ in the same way as Durkheim would later state that there was no other ‘moral order than society’. The Naturwissenshaften are seemingly straightforward, the Geisteswissenschaften seemingly less so.The first center around objects and phenomena that can be measured, even if in high energy physics such numbers can conflict and that there is an ‘observer effect’ at work. There is no object or posited force in the cosmos that escapes its own order, and this order is non-moral as well as non-moralizing.

            It is strikingly different with the social sciences or human sciences. Not only is the object the same as the subject – we are studying ourselves, which only could not give someone like Durkheim pause because of his very French nonchalance regarding other like conditions; ‘religion is society worshipping itself’, he famously declared in 1912, and so why not have a science dedicated to studying society itself? – that object is both moral and indeed moralizing, and all the more so today it appears. Mill recognized this with a typical rationality, including understanding that because the moral sciences centered around humanity, they must not only include women by definition but also that women should be doing the research as well as men. Harriet Martineau, the first person to write a social science methods book and also the first female fieldworker, was an associate of Mill’s, amongst a number of other high profile early woman scientists. And though the inventor of positivism, Auguste Comte, coined the term sociology, Martineau was the first actual sociologist. One might suggest at this juncture that anti-moralizing is still moralizing, but there it is. For built right into the very idea of self-study is the destabilizing presence of the ‘spirit’ or Geist.

            The career of the human sciences was, over the past two centuries or so, often held up by the sense that it could not in fact be scientific at all, a view some hold even today. One could be forgiven for simply replying, ‘well if it didn’t trouble Weber, it shouldn’t trouble us’, but there is more to it than such a nod to authoritative analytics. And the critique of the human sciences was not a one-way street, with just natural scientists disdaining their ‘softer’ cousins. From within the ranks of the moral analysts a bevy of hortatory criticism emanated, with the likes of Ian Jarvie, Edmund Leach, Malinowski and Kroeber as well the founder of behaviorism, John Watson and most famously his student, B.F. Skinner, weighing in on how ‘backward’ were their respective fields, ‘mystical’, and even counting ‘magical thinking’ as a kind of object. Pitirim Sorokin, in his Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences (1956) – of which I own a signed and dedicated first edition, no less, speaking of fetishizing the object – dismantles the hocus-pocus of both the critiqued and the critics alike. Closer to our own day, the Weber scholar and philosopher of science Stanislaw Andreski, in his Social Science as Sorcery, (1972), makes no hoary bones about declaring much of the Geisteswissenschaften to be generally fit only for a museum, and some of their contents even to be non-existent.

            Even so, it can be also be said that this back and forth is part of a healthy scientific discourse, a necessary dynamic so that the wheat and chaff of investigation and interpretation can be separated and contrasted with one another. And the sciences ‘proper’ too were not without their like critics, most notably, Thomas Kuhn and later on, Bruno Latour, whose argument, if ever actually understood by the anti-science crowd, would with great irony be quite devastating. So, while there has clearly been an ever-present element of both sciences natural and social which is given to epistemological slippage, the critical discussion coming from within these discourses has generally been enough to identify the problematic feature. But not always.

            Eugenics remains the most egregious example of a study that everyone across the board for some sixty years thought was science. It was not limited regionally, like Lysenkoism, it was not practiced only by applied specialists, such as anthropometry, and it was not associated with any specific politics of the day, which ultimately was its most insidious and dangerous ruse. We have to remind ourselves that the Reich was merely an extension, in its policies and practices, of what everyone thought at the time and long leading up to that time. This aside from Anti-Semitism itself, which was ubiquitous. Eugenics was the source of this sensitivity made sensibility, bigotry turned into science and thus made ‘objective’ by it. There is a eugenics institute to this day, though privately funded only, and sociobiologists, who skirt the very boundary of a form of self-hatred as human beings, still top the best-seller lists from time to time. The idea that superiority, especially that in ‘intelligence’, can be accounted for by ethnicity, gender, or other structural variables dies hard due to the very sense that we are yet in ignorance of the ultimate workings of human consciousness.

            All of this takes us directly back to the original puzzle which confronted Mill: how does one design a logic in which subject and object are essentially the same thing? What kind of epistemology is viable for such a condition? Science is not only a demythology but also very much a deontology, which suggests that any essence of thinghood as the natural sciences explain it has nothing of Being in it at all, and thus can be ‘reduced’ to its relevant quanta. We have encountered little enough in our nascent study of the cosmos to suggest otherwise. But from the first, the social scientist comes up against nothing less than a fully-fledged ontology, living and breathing, professing its soul to itself and anyone else who might be willing to, perhaps naively, listen. How does one study something ‘like that’ at all? Attacked from all sides, with philosophers joining scientists in deriding the student of humanity – the first engaged in protecting its interpretative territory, the second its good name – it would seem that the very idea of the social sciences itself was a non-starter. But due to the exiguity of the object, as well as the simple fascination of any thinking being reflecting upon itself as well as the problem, not of ‘other minds’ or the Other per se, but rather in getting along with the other, the human sciences have, in fits and starts, nevertheless flourished. Economics, that hard-hearted ‘dismal science’ which is not about nature at all, remains high in the human saddle, and its micro counterpart, psychology, is the analytic space from which all of the ‘bleeding-heart’, if mostly equally dismal, public policies emanate. Geography reminds us that we still live in and on a world, and anthropology and sociology have gifted that same world to all of the newly fashionable ‘studies’ that, for the Thomas Huxleys of the day, strain the definitions of both science and discourse alike.

            The conflict about what is and what is not pseudo-science is thus never a town and gown affair. The physicist nods his head to the chemist but that’s all he does, the biologist shakes his head at the psychologist, the economist sniffs at the sociologist, the anthropologist wrings her hands at cultural studies and yet nursing, and the philosopher turns away from all of it in a piece. That anti-scientism targets its apparent opposite tells us of a home truth as well; that some scientists take their work for a kind of modernist and rationalist religion. And yet the political situation does not admit any easy egress, for if the scientist explicates her vocation along lines Weberian let alone from the perspective of a Latour, then all might as well be lost, for once the regressive anti-science person gets a hold of the presence of both historical and epistemological relativism within science itself, its very existence can be called into question. To be absolutely objective insofar as one can, science truly is ‘a candle in the dark’, as Sagan described it. It is only a tool, subject to human error, but it remains the best we have. The anti-scientist does not only disbelieve in this sensibility, he also feels that science is itself a fraud; that there is, in a word, no difference between science and pseudo-science.

            This fundamental opposition to all of the sciences, be they of nature or of humanity, cannot be eroded by rational argument. Even the most direct evidence to the senses is dismissed – witness the malingering doubt regarding climate change – simply because the source is itself invalidated: ‘Science says what? Well, that’s obviously wrong, immoral, ungodly, secularist, sacrilegious.’ I do not think that most scientists understand the scope and depth of the opposition ranged against their trade and its discourses. Trained to accept both authoritative argument and sensate evidence, learned in mathematics and the details of technologies, the scientist imagines that she is only an adept within a universal suffrage of thinking. But in fact, most people have no idea how science works or even why it exists. This is another reason why febrile persons from within the academic discourses have of late suggested that there can be ‘indigenous science’ or epistemology, or that different cultures have ‘different’ sciences. No and no. This is the truer pseudo-science. Science itself is a formal discourse which studies in a systematic manner the patterns and structures of nature and culture. It is neither Hexis nor Praxis. The Greeks invented it, and no one else even came close. For all other cultures, for whatever local or historical reason, remained ensconced in their tradition; their cosmogonies may be beautiful but they are nevertheless mythical. And even if our shared Jamesian consciousness is separated from the infinite ‘by only the filmiest of screens’, it will fall to science alone to discover and explain just how this is so. That is, if it still exists.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary ‘moral sciences’ for over two decades.

Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future

Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future (On Avoiding Ourselves)

            Though selfhood is not thinghood, we have placed in our way a number of distractions that help us avoid the basic challenge of ongoingness. The fabric of this temporal vestment we are compelled, as living beings, to don and to wear and thence wear out, is such that while it admits entry to several kinds of origins, it is nevertheless something placed upon us, and which does not have as its source who we are as persons. In short, though only at first glance, the difference between nature and nurture is the same difference as exists between the what and the who. If one is content only to be a thing, then natural selection can suffice. But if one wishes to develop their fuller humanity, to become a who and not merely a what, then it is to culture we must turn, and in a sense, turn into. For it is only culture which provides an identity beyond that mammalian, and this in turn is a species-shared identity, quite apart from all of its diverse guises. Yes, there are a number of ‘sources of the self’, as it were, most of them outside of our ken and afar from our reflection, but at the same time we, with a gritty panache, come to embody and even to ‘own’ much of this source material, even if we as often feel that it also possesses us.

            This veteran selfhood, ‘mature being’ as Gadamer has referred to it, represents the dialectical pinion resting uplifted from both nature and nurture. The ‘debate’ between their thesis and antithesis is, unless seen dialectically, a false one. There is no either/or at work or at stake. We are at first animals which are then encultured to become human beings. That this socialization process begins perhaps even before birth is suggestive that our animal ‘nature’ is something to be overcome, something that culture takes pride in moving beyond, just as we might well take a similar sense of accomplishment away from having become our own persons yet within a culture. We are perplexed by this movement, even so, and I imagine that this is what is part of the elemental puzzle of ‘when’ a human being begins to become human, at birth or rather even at conception. For the vast majority of human existence, humanness does not appear, at least fully, until one had survived the first difficult years of life itself, say, in social contract societies, until age 6 or so. This first and most difficult accomplishment is celebrated through renaming rituals, and indeed, the infant and small child in these primordial societies were not generally given a name at all, reflecting the shocking mortality rate at large. Another new name at puberty and after perhaps a month of passage, almost immediate adulthood. Another new name with the marriage bond, and then finally a pseudonym, so that the living might still refer to the now unspeakable dead.

            Van Gennep, in 1909, was the first to codify the four-square rites of passage, as he first called them – birth, puberty, marriage, death – and though they resonate with us today, we have made into signage what once were assignations. And there is yet another wrinkle; that selfhood is not identical with one’s humanness, just as one’s person is not the same as one’s culture, one’s individuality not always in line with one’s society. Hence the lazy idiom ‘human nature’, which no thinking person would ever dare to utter in response to what is in fact habitus at most, irresponsibility at worst. There is no singular nature which is human, for to be human is to be a being of both language and history, both of which change, sometimes radically, over time. What remains within our essential condition as Dasein is, on the one hand, the anxiety of our running-along, and on the other, the care which we bring to our thrown projects. The apex of this more telling triangle is concernful being, itself a prequel to the mature being noted above. And if cheap talk of human nature is one common exeunt from the confrontation with both the tradition – a weighty but wholly cultural habitus and historical inertia – and of equal import, that with myself, we hold a number of other pleasant pleasures to ourselves when avoiding the day-to-day dalliance with our ownmost demise.

            Nostalgia is perhaps the most insidious of these entanglements, but the base thrill of authority and its exertion is another commonplace instance. In the one, I am free to do nothing and let everything be done for me, as it ‘must’ have been in some imagined social horizon, dimly perceived through dimwitted lens. In the second, I am free to do everything to another, and thence have them carry out my bidding. The family unit is the crucible in which their dark alchemy is carried on, to the detriment of any and all children. In the one, the child is regressed, which is convenient for our consumer economy, and in the second, she is enslaved, which in turn produces complacency for the State. If we adults bemoan the absence of courage in our politicians, we are only ourselves to blame, since we tend to desire cowardice in our children, and some, yet more evil, even take pleasure in it.

            So, let us suggest that the selfhood of self might be a way in which to distinguish the appearance, however belated, of mature being in the individual person who has also, through this same process and crossing over this same limen, moved from mere individuation to individuality. Certainly, it is a daunting prospect; this sense of aloneness, without or within the prop of aloofness or even astuteness, but the grace of adult life allows for a number of runs at it. I am unaware of anyone who has made the full hit the very first time, and perhaps it is the case that it is a cumulative affair, and after all, who’s counting? And it is doubtful that one can play the probability game with life-course maturing, as if one seeks to roll a twenty but one has five rolls of the relevant polyhedral to sum such a number before one is out of chances. So, if the looking glass self provides a basis upon which to construct a later selfhood, the elemental anxiety and care of Dasein’s thrownness develops itself upshifted into a concernful being which is the conscience of this selfhood experienced as mine ownmost compass. The cardinal directions have been exposed for what they are; if meritorious aesthetically or ethically, they are not so much thoughtlessly heeded but at least noted as benchmarks, but if they are hollow, their idols are toppled through the sheer and simple withdrawal of our specific idolatry of them. No God can exist without believers.

            The question of ‘believing in oneself’ too has been adulterated in false adulation. It occurs most commonly in hortatory manuals that describe in lurid and very material terms what the ‘good life’ is supposed to be, and to be about. One has ‘arrived’ when one attains a certain status, both in one’s professional field of expertise, in one’s purchase of esteemed real estate, through one’s trophy spouse, or even in smaller instances such as the auto one drives or where one takes a vacation. All of this sounds very 1950s, but is it truly the case that we have left these markers behind us? I would hazard rather that even the more recent in-group status-seekers have their own versions of ‘arrival’, whether feminist or queerist, transist or ethnist and so on. And what of the non-European non-binary person driving the German SUV, a common sight in any urban center. Like the creationist who also drives a similar vehicle, seemingly unaware of the essential contradiction this embodies, or blithely able to ignore it, the post-colonial culture critic, through their frontage and their rewritten self-esteem, is nevertheless a novel participant in the same sources of the self which had given all those cultures ever without a conception of the self an almost ontological pause. One might proffer a simple slogan here; ‘The West is evil but by gods I want to be Western’.

            In one’s own way, of course. And in working towards this renewed self-interest, the non-European will inevitably encounter the same existential challenges we ourselves have come to know so well. In adopting a self-conception, the traditional cultural suasions of kinship and tribe drop away. The entanglement here is the same one Europeans endured several centuries ago, and also explains in the fuller part the regressive temper and backsliding tempo of immigration societies; those whose ancestors left Europe never underwent the maturing their newly estranged relatives would, not unlike when a native of Paris visits Quebec and is bemused by the fact that there, the Francophones speak as if it were still the 17th century. All of those peasants and religious fanatics thrown up on indigenous shorelines the world over! Is it any wonder that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound found solace in Europe, only to reject it through a neo-Catholic recidivism for the one, a Neo-fascist recidivism for the other. Yes, Europe has grown stale, comfortable, weak-kneed and smug, but perhaps the perduring subsistence of the querying and querulous Cossack, as well as that of the adolescent and absolutist Yankee will provide for the best of Western thought a cracked mirror, wherein it can identify the fissures of its own latter-day revolution.

            Might it not be the same thing, writ small, for the denatured yet over-nurtured self? We each of us can stand for querying, for another to question our oft-drab druthers, just as we might be enlightened, once again, by all those who did not cross over the first time. If so, if we can step aside from all that we feel we ‘need’ to maintain both our status and our esteem, we might then discover the threshold to mature culture is much closer than we would have surmised. We might indeed begin to understand that to be fully human is not to rely on any rite of passage but to have become one’s ownmost movement of being, engaging the fusion of horizons whilst engaging in concernfulness. To know this would be to know the history of Being itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Valkyrie Eleison

Valkyrie Eleison (The Ultimate Narcissism)

But slight are they, unworthy a word;

still whole are my limbs and trustily knit.

If but half so well as my arm

shield and spear had availed me,

ne’er from foe had I fled;

  • Wagner, The Valkyries, Act one, Scene one

            Of late, with visions of the human apocalypse a major theme in entertainment fiction, the mystery of our collective end made commodity and just in time, the wealthy among us seek to transcend their destinies by constructing heavily fortified villas in remote places, staffed by select groups of trusted friends and what-have-you, to be driven around – touring the wasteland which they believe to be our future – in equally adept vehicles, armored, with six wheels and powered by, well, whatever rapidly dwindling fuel supplies remain. Corporations which actually build these latter-day Babelian monsters report more business than they can handle, not that they are sorrowful in the least. For the bottom line of the dread-mongers trade is the ecstasy of an ejaculation of blood.

            It is a central tenet of Calvinism to imagine that if one is materially successful in this world, that it should be taken as sign of one’s elect status in the then novel Protestant soteriological doctrine. Salvation was always a mystery to this point. One did not know, and could not know, who was to be saved and who was to be damned. Now that the wealthy can save themselves, so they think, their investment in a bedamned future severs any Gordian knot traditionally associated with the divine mystery. And this not only in Christian belief but also in numerous Pre-Christian cultures, including those Nordic. The Valkyries, the choosers of the slain in battle and thus also, by definition, choosing those who will live to fight another day, are famously celebrated in the Wagnerian epic Ring Cycle. One of the most gripping scenes in film history has their ‘Ride’, from Act III of Die Walküre, providing the soundtrack for a vicious helicopter gunship attack in Apocalypse Now! (1979). But none of this has any relevance beyond the framework of the conflict between the happenstance of death in human life and the human aspiration to live on in its face.

            Whirligig Valkyries or no, death, sudden and irretrievable, is the daily potential lot of anyone who lives. What the wealthy have decided, in their flight before this essential condition, is that they will build for themselves an impenetrable shield against not death per se, since even after the end of the world they too will still die, likely alone and starving in their obscure castles, but rather against chance itself. So it is not the idea that one has attempted to cheat death that is so despicable about their actions, but rather that they believe themselves to be worthy of life alone, outside of death; that they are superior to the rest of us simply because of the ‘signage’ of their logistical capacities, their entrepreneurial genius, their work ethic, their dumb luck, their inheritances, their elite marriage circles or any combination aforementioned. Instead of channeling their wealth and skills back into the world which gave them their fluky birth, in order to help save the species from itself, they, with a calculation both patent and precise, turn their backs on we lower forms of life. In interview, their contractors – who of course do not name their clients, some of whom are celebrities after all – say that these people seek escape not even from disaster of whatever type, but from other human beings. This is what they actually state as the reason for hiring such shadow-builders. The wealthy elites are quite aware of our resentment towards them, quite understanding of the dynamics of capital, and quite shy about fully trusting governments and their policing forces to ensure the longitudinal protection of their wealth. They not only build redoubts, they assuage their own recurring doubts by also contracting private militia, ex-military retirees turned post-imperial soldiers of fortune. Call their cliques night watchmen on amphetamines, perhaps. Will these trusty, if well-paid, dogs also benefit from being housed inside the structures they must risk their lives, supposedly, to protect?

            The entire enterprise would be laughable if it were not the case that these elites see the world-joke being placed squarely upon us. Their utter lack of conscience, social or ethical or yet historical, places they themselves in the role of the court jester; observant, unwilling to commit, saying the things no others can say, for which of the rest of us would not choose as they have done, if we could only do so? But in fact, there are those whose concern is with the authentic human future, whose care is for the species-essence and for their human fellow. The idea of the apocalypse makes for thrilling fiction, apparently, but only the most cynical sociopath wills its reality. Even a Putin does not will it, and seeks to avoid it by bluff and bluster as well as by old-fashioned hammer-and-tongs combat over which the truer Valkyries still range. The sociopaths, including both the mock-Christian evangelist who sloughs off the responsibility for the ‘end times’ on an unwilling deity, as well as the neurotic and self-absorbed celebrity or entrepreneur, who feels strongly that the rest of us can really well go to hell, are fortunately few in number and tend not to seek political office. Even so, their presence constitutes an undergrowth of amorality that any sane society would shun. We have, in our ardor for fantasy both epic, as in that religious, and vulgar, as in that capitalist, indeed created this elite ourselves, and thus must bear the burden of its deepening legacy.

            For those elites who do not seek egress from the responsibility they share with all those who live today, we might ask that they engage in their own capitalist combat and take out the companies whose leadership promotes self-seeking evil; whose directors hide themselves away from the too-public eye; whose founders imagine themselves immortal at our expense. Can one think that a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates has a Wolf’s Lair awaiting their last call? A William Shatner, a Patrick Stewart? Perhaps we do not know, in any real sense, the famous and the celebrated. But what we do know is that increasing numbers of lesser lights are becoming more and more obsessed, not about the survival of the species, but rather about merely their own, paltry shadow-sylphs, half-souled dwarves whose only comfort is to live again within the penumbra of personhood, dwelling in a world made the darker by their narcissistic madness.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, health, religion, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Two Types of Freedom

Two Types of Freedom: Academic and Civil

            Often confused, mainly due to the coincidence of youth matriculating from an unfree state to the relative freedom of new adulthood, academic freedom and civil liberty appear to blend into one another because the young person, in their daily rounds and as a newly freed and fully human being under the law, now steps onto campus and now steps off. This motion, normative, expected, and quotidian, gives the impression of being seamless and consistent. But all experienced adults understand that social context, when consorting with human freedom in general, is of the utmost. Every organization has its intake and internal rules. If one does not wish to conform to them, one should not join in the first place. Yet it is understandable as well, with some little perspective of years, that anyone who has been essentially unfree for the first seventeen years of their life would mistake a sudden and seemingly complete opening up of the space of general freedom in their nascent social being as the all in all. Following directly from this, the ability to speak one’s mind, no matter the issue or context at hand also appears to be a new reality and that by definition.

            The actual reality is, however, that the institutional unfreedom of childhood and youth is simply loosened, not loosed. Freedom can only be had within society, as Berger notes, even though for human beings, this also means that the social order has itself, and within it, also by a more adept self-definition, the seeds of its own revolution. In short, all enduring social change comes from within. The young person, who is abruptly an outsider on two fronts – one, and gladly so, forever graduated from the unfreedom of chattel-like status in and around eighteen years of age; and two, suddenly and not by choice, someone who is looking at the adult world from the outside in, and this for a few more years perhaps – has difficulty grasping that the simplest entrance into this second world, and the one that each of us spends the rest of his life inside, is to learn the new rules of conduct and how they both open themselves onto basic freedoms whilst limiting others. The political fashions of the day serve mostly as an exercise in self-expression which is at best annoying and irrelevant and at worst a satire or parody of authentic freedom. These early experiments in a generalized freedom inevitably come up against certain limits imposed by the adult organizations, such as universities and governments, corporations and benevolent societies. Their push and pull constitutes a rite of passage for youth-into-adulthood and should not be given much credit otherwise.

            But let us, before continuing, first define the two major types of freedom which are at stake and which, because of their close contiguity in the societal life course as well as the coursing of social life, become easily conflated at first glance.

            1. Academic Freedom: this is a technical and professional denotation only relevant to conduct on campus and in the scholarly discourses as published and expressed in other vocational or guild-like settings, such as conferences or virtual pedagogic spaces etc. It adheres only when a student or a faculty member seeks to make a discursive statement about whatever it is in which they have an intellectual interest. A ‘discourse’ is simply the conversation, historical and theoretical, that surrounds a topic, a subject or object, a question, or an idea. Anthropology has a specific discourse, feminism another, economics a third, and so on. That they run into one another, sometimes in a salutary and sometimes in a conflicting manner, is nothing to shy away from, but is rather that which gives continued life to the conversation of humankind and its sense of what our collective brain-trust is capable. Thus, the ‘conflict of interpretations’ to borrow from Ricoeur, is the life-blood of thought itself. Academic freedom means that within each discourse, a student or professional is free to state their case as best they can, mustering this or that line of argument and evidence as the case may allow, and this is all that it means.

            2. Civil Freedom: this is a much more general phrase connoting the interplay between the law, mores, custom, tradition, and the individual agency which we, in North America, so dearly prize. It frames the ‘open space of the public’, wherein the Agora-like conversation of the day, of the hour, of the moment, as well as that perennial, may take place unadulterated by the ulterior motives of specific institutions. It may seem that it is in this space where everyone becomes her own Socratic presence, but it is well to remember that just because any single institution or organization cannot, or should not be allowed to, adjudicate the content and rhetoric of this shared space, this in turn means that the entire set of oft-competing institutional suasions is very much present. It is by the check and balance of social institutions and their confrontation with personal sensibilities and individuated agency that civil freedom exists. In a word, our general social freedom is framed by the actual work of all of the aspects of society to which we belong; it is not, repeat, not the same thing as an idealized human freedom. Its very name should caution us to this regard: it is a freedom which is civil and must remain so.

            Understood as discrete, it should simply be a matter of committing to memory and thence to practice, for young people, the difference between the two. More than this, one can now recognize that neither academic nor civil freedom approaches the abstraction of freedom ‘itself’ or in general. The former is solely about discourse and ideas, the latter about playing a cultural game which has within it the always-already of social change within its loosened harness. To overstate one’s case within the Offentlichkeit is to betray its collective trust. To claim that one is solely within the truth of things in a world of competing truth-claims, is to sabotage its historical force. This is what university students, for one instance, are currently engaged in, no matter what ‘side’ they have chosen to demonstrate for or against. What is lost in these mise-en-scene is the very freedom they imagine they are expressing.

            This is so not due to topic or ‘issue’ – in the same way, academic freedom may be gutted by a zealotry which is in itself value-neutral; it can adhere to any discursive topic and at any time, pending wider influences – but rather to the manner of enacting one’s claims about such. There are, proverbially, multiple sides to every ‘story’, and even within our own biographies, we can never be utterly certain of our own intents, and with failing memories over time, even our own actions once committed. The worlding of the world is also not entirely known to us in the moment. It often takes a while for things to ‘play out’, to see the effects of our actions in the present. For the young person, all action seems to account for itself in the now, but anyone with a little life experience knows that this is hardly ever the case. This ‘now’ is an artefact of a consumer anti-culture which seeks to compel us to satisfy immediate need and greed, and is thus an interloper with regard to the political conversation which must be present to animate any culture, no matter how sophisticated or simple it may be. But for the newly adult person, schooled only in the now of consumption, trained only to react to a stimulus, market or otherwise, and to never either prevent or at the least consider, freedom takes on the mantle only of a commodity, however ‘priceless’ it is said to be. Generationally, it is certainly necessary that young people test the limits of their respective social bonds, for this is an important way in which we older adults may gain a larger perspective and thus join our younger peers in initiating this or that change. At the same time, what is authentic to generational interplay must at some point upshift itself into a true ‘confrontation with the tradition’, something each of us, no matter how aged and experienced, remain a part of until we finally part ways with human life itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, social theory, religion, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Odyssey of Theodicy

The Odyssey of Theodicy (A Metacriminal Career)

            For the theist, a theodicy of some sort is generally required in order to resolve the apparent contradiction between a benevolent divinity and the existence of that which is deemed evil in His creation. Leibniz coined the term in 1710, but Levinas, amongst other contemporary writers, have stated forcefully that theodicy is, not a false problem, as the atheist would have it, but rather a kind of ‘blasphemy’; an insult to Godhead, given that one is imagining that God is Himself ultimately responsible for evil. Of course, it depends on the kind of God one invokes, for even Yahweh, the object of Job’s resistance as well as that of the post-Holocaust Jewish writers in the history and philosophy of religion, is not a God of love and grace, but rather one demonstrating some kind of vengefulness and ‘jealousy’. Certainly, the Hebrews had placed themselves in a liminal condition, by first electing a specifically ethnic mascot God but without giving Him the moral scope to ethically wax and wane along with human action in the world. Yahweh was still a God beyond history, a divinity of the Act, and not of action. It is only with what is referred to as the ‘new covenant’ that we see a God, not only on earth for the first time, but also one that declares only the good and only love and those for all, through the enlargement of grace and the mechanism of forgiveness.

            It is with this later advent that the problem of theodicy more truly arises. For the antique Gods, evil was something that humans dealt with, even if it was itself dealt by the Gods themselves on a regular basis. Good was rare, and so the bad, if not the outright evil, was something one could generally expect. The barbarian was beneath good and bad, and thus could be considered evil simply in his presence in the world. For the Greeks, this amounted to almost everyone else. They excerpted the Egyptians from this blanket indictment simply because they are aware of this civilization’s astonishing accomplishments. But for the Egyptians, the only evil which did exist was the soul’s recidivism, expressed as one not having lived up to one’s innate abilities over the life-course. For the Greeks, the greatest evil was hope, since it proffered a sense of false consciousness to anyone who maintained it overlong. It is of great interest, given the historical career of humanity’s inhumanity, that something such as hope has retained not only its significance in our collective imagination, but also its very being in a world of evils. For the theist, this is a sign that God is Himself not dead, at least not yet. For the atheist, hope is presumably a more evolutionary designed trait, though equally proprioceptive in its oft tacit presence in our lives.

            It does seem a tad irresponsible to ascribe to any sort of divinity the origin and malingering presence of what is called evil. Indeed, Ernst Becker suggests that very term is now archaic, made anonymously ‘banal’ by Weberian dynamics, including and especially  Entzauberung, of which such banality is presumably a part. It suggests that the good as well becomes, if not utterly banal, at least blithe and circumstantial, and following from this, uninteresting outside of the specific action in which it occurs. Was this then the social and historical destiny of the neighbor figure, one may ask? However this may be, the idea that it is a God’s fault that evil exists seems to me to be pathetic, a kind of avoidance behavior, so if theodicy were an ethical issue rather than simply a logical problem due to the presence of a certain kind of ontological model, I would be inclined to agree with Levinas and company. But just as we cannot murder any God based upon a Theoditical condition from which we appear unwilling to ourselves egress – such and act would be a mere rationalization set up against historical forces, as well as way in which to preserve our human ego in the face of those same large-scale and discursive dynamics – we cannot be content simply to kill ourselves either. For a human death does not meet either the design specifications, or meet up with the higher drama, of a deicide. If we ‘decide to deicide’, if you will, then it must be due rather to an acceptance of a different kind of human insight and perhaps also maturity. Somewhat ironically, the death of God has everything to do with the life of Man.

            In this, theodicy belatedly becomes a false problem, since it rests in the belief that there is not only Godhead but that this same divine presence is for the good, and is itself the good. These are two very broad assumptions, and anyone who attempts their dual leaps of faith, since they involve two quite different questions, must immediately also acknowledge that the human heart is rather the seat of evil, and thus sets itself up in opposition to that divine. More clear-headed is, I imagine, the idea of godhead but without any specific ethical rider placed upon it. Another form of being, certainly, but without an historical interest, human history being so defined by ethical action in real time. This is a more contemporary view of divinity, and it is expressed in popular culture through the science-fantasy professional ethic of the ‘prime directive’ and like policies, which specifically disallows advanced cultures to influence their more primitive cousins, though in theory it would apply to any kind of cross-cultural encounter. But more seriously, it is also expressed in psychopathology, wherein the person who imagines God is speaking to them, or equally so, extraterrestrials hounding them, is labeled as schizoaffective. In a word, we are not, in our modern scene, to think ourselves favored in any manner imaginable, for it is this idea, lending itself to the sense of both a superiority soteriological as well as material, which is the very root of all evil in the social world.

            And so we circle back, in a sense, to the Hebrew critique of those who seek to escape from the confrontation with their own character, exemplified in Babel. As Sherlock Holmes put it, ‘those who attempt to transcend their own nature tend to fall below it’, and in the context of that particular adventure, this epigram would apply equally to a Darwinian world as to one Augustinian. The Babelian aspiration, to find a way not only to be like the Gods actually are, but also, and as a necessary outcome of this false dialectic, to escape the problem of internecine theodicy – why is a being such as myself given to both good and evil, and sometimes at once? – is equally a rationalization of our finite powers as it is a hoped-for egress from our human finitude. The recognition that we are not Gods, at first a deflation and even an embarrassment or yet a shamefulness for antiquity, becomes in our own day a way in which we understand that the Gods also are not us. It is perhaps this converse statement that, more than anything else, provides the opened space wherein which deicide can eventually occur. When it does, we also gain a fuller comprehension of the Christian autohagiographic similitude; that the God of love is no longer divine but has become human, though in a way only a God could effect. It is this act-into-action, no longer metaphoric but quite real as defined by what one can know of history by definition, that should provide for us the role model given the stakes; we too must become human. Only in so doing will we gain a lasting appreciation for our finitudinal condition, one by which a fragile future for our species becomes much more plausible than it is at present.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, religion, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.