On the Fear of ‘Death-in-itself’

On the Fear of ‘Death-in-itself’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris Hilton; My Heroine

Paris Hilton; My Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Overlooked Genres of Domestic Terrorism

Some Overlooked Genres of Domestic Terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dialectic of Elemental Forces in Mahler

                        The Dialectic of Elemental Forces in Mahler

                No more wooing, voice you’re outgrowing that don’t let your cry

                                be a wooing cry even though it could be as pure as a bird’s

                                that the season lifts up as she herself rises nearly forgetting

                                that it’s just a fretful creature and not some single heart

                                to be tossed towards happiness deep into intimate skies.

                                Like him you want to call forth a still invisible mate

                                a silent listener in whom a reply slowly awakens

                                warming itself by hearing yours to become

                                your own bold feeling’s blazing partner.

– Rilke, from Seventh Elegy

            It is at once remarkable but also commonplace to understand great historical movements as being borne on the shoulders of specific individuals who themselves seem to be placed beyond history. This is misleading on the level of historical consciousness, wherein we come to understand our own times through the ‘confrontation with the tradition’ and the ‘fusion of horizons’, often aesthetic in character. At the same time, with the most superior visions of humankind, one finds culminations expressed by singular persons who have themselves been embraced by the entire history of their chosen art. In music, we have four such figures from whom everything else in their respective centuries followed; in the seventeenth century, Monteverdi, in the eighteenth, Bach. For the nineteenth century, it was Beethoven who gave birth to the ideas the rest of the music of that century took up, and in the following century, it was Gustav Mahler. That both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw competing and somehow ‘dualistic’ interpretations of these origins – Brahms versus Wagner and then Schoenberg versus Stravinsky – only suggests that there were at least two essential elements already present in the original. In Beethoven, the ‘classicism’ and the ‘romanticism’, in Mahler, the tonal and the ‘atonal’. But in fact these elements are mere glosses, refracting much more profound essences present in the art at hand. For music in our modern era has been about the disquiet distances with which contemporary humanity is both burdened and challenged.

            What do I mean by this ‘distance’? We have a longing, expressed in the gap between self and other, individual and society, mind and body, spirit and nature and so on, which is unique to our modernity. Less profound, but still profoundly disturbing, are the distances that separate the genders, citizen and State, nation and nation, rich and poor. All of these distances combined are said to produce in us a kind of subjective alienation, that which Durkheim referred to as ‘anomie’. At the heart of this unease, communicating itself to us as an inability to bridge this or that gap and the corresponding assignment of blame for such ongoing failures, is the very sense that I should be myself and no other. This selfhood, this ‘fretful creature’ is indeed no ‘single heart’. And we are not so much thrown up as of our own volition, but rather, as Heidegger proverbially and repetitively states, thrown into the arc of worldhood. We are thrown beings, and our being-thrownness declares to us both our birth and death. We glimpse this existential caveat through the sense that much of ‘life’ is beyond our daily control. Certainly the machinations of nations, the coruscations of corporations, even the emotions of one’s beloved, lie elsewhere than within my grasp. We are responsible for these ‘events’ and acts only insofar as we act in concert with them, abet them, or ignore them. Yet ultimately, even with the deepest compassion and most critical voice, they escape our possession. This is the distance of distanciated being, which is necessary to the modern person given his existence as an individuality.

            We would likely not trade in that kind of self-consciousness for other versions of being human, embodiments we associate with previous ages or cultures past. On the one hand, this may serve as a salve, a tool by which one might reconcile one’s sense of thus being ‘stuck with’ oneself as one is. Even so, the shared consciousness of mechanical solidarity escapes us, the idea of becoming an automaton rightfully revolts us, and the sensibility that, though a self, our whole reason of being is to exist for the other, is a difficult ethic. Indeed, we might well suggest that a neighbor figure who was always in the mode of ‘being neighborly’ could no longer distinguish herself from the socius of normative daily life. In a word, the radical act of the neighbor would be no longer available to us if the neighbor itself became a social role. So distanciated being is the lot of we moderns, if for no other reason than there are no other models that appeal to us.

            Given this, the dual complexes of elements that we harbor within our individuated breasts must somehow be reconciled. The individual may engage in all sorts of activities that promote ‘wholeness’, including forms that often hail from a metaphysics different from our own, such as meditation. Within Western consciousness, however, it has been the role of art to transcend opposites and oppositions alike. And when this transcendence appears to not merely overlook the structure of existence, its birth and its death, its light and its dark, but to actually combine the two essences into a new element, we are in the presence of the greatest art of all. This is the case in the music of Mahler.

            Bernstein’s epic and deeply felt commentary on Mahler 9 is well known and well taken. He stresses the dualistic nature of both the man and his art. Yet what is left out is equally important, if not more so, and indeed supports not only the argument that Mahler was working with and working through the most basic elements and forces of life and Being, but in fact overcoming them, transfiguring them into a novel expression of human consciousness. Just so, the ability to do precisely this is the essence of the distinction we make between consciousness in general and that of which we, as human beings, are in possession. Mahler 9 has been iterated as being ‘about’ death and the ultimate inability of humanity to overcome its own innate mortality. Yes and no. As a set piece, the ninth is in itself a compendia of the past and future, of soaring transcendental, if also heartbreaking, tonality and searing unearthly dissonance and partial atonality; life and death in their mortal embrace. But as part of a life’s work, Mahler 9 is simply the sibling work to his previous symphony – though the cycle ‘The Song of the Earth’ was written in between them, almost as a chaperone of sorts, a liminality; a threshold into which one can step from both sides, as it were – and just as Mahler 8 expressed the inexpressible joy and verdure of the fullest life possible to human consciousness, so Mahler 9 provides us with the sorrow of that same life, equally overfull and too powerful for the quotidian senses of rational being. In Mahler’s own terms, it was never death per se but rather more specifically, the death of love, that imbricated the ninth. The death of love, inversing and balancing the Wagnerian paean which exhorts the love of death, is in fact the more difficult challenge for we humans. For all must die, and in that sense death is most impersonal and anonymous. But to face death in a more intimate and very much personal manner one has to lose love and when one does not desire to do so.

            The expression of transcendental love in Mahler 8 is simply balanced by that same expression of its absence in the ninth. There, we die whilst yet still alive, and yet life without joy has both no merit but also is no longer life. At this point another important ‘dualistic’ contrast should be noted: the eighth is arguably the greatest work of art ever created but it is tremendously difficult for the ensemble and conductor, whereas the listener is transported into 90 plus minutes of infinite bliss; contrast this with the ninth, which is easier on the musician – though by no means easy! – and correspondingly infinitely more difficult for the listener. If an ensemble can make it through Mahler 8 they can make it through anything. If the listener can survive Mahler 9 they can survive any other work. Perhaps there are technically more demanding works for both musicians and audience – Schoenberg’s Opus 31 comes readily to mind – but there are no more demanding works existentially than Mahler’s two final completed symphonies. Our very being is at stake, and we must rise to the occasion on both counts.

            With that in mind, it is also well to recall that Mahler himself, though he was, as Bernstein points out for instance, well aware of his imminent demise, did not throw himself over the cliff in any premature manner. He kept conducting, writing, mending fences with his estranged wife, teaching and promoting musical talent, and touring right up until close to the end. Mahler, in his ability to live the life he was granted, remains a role model for us no matter our relative talent. His own humanity, though somehow able to access the pinnacle of human achievement and recreate it time after time, remained both his own and thus also our own. Mortality can advance itself on the one hand as a personal threat, and this is the atmosphere of the ninth, wherein we feel every base emotion and existential fundament; the glaring, striding, unimpeachable power of the first movement, the risus sardonicus of the intervening scherzos, the shimmering otherworldliness of the final farewell, all of this in a dialectic which seems nothing human uplifts the light and dark into a chiaroscuro and in doing so, overcomes the very chiasmus that gave birth to humanity’s oppositional ‘nature’. But in the eighth, mortality is advanced as a creative force, that all life might well ‘become immortal’ through dying many times, as Nietzsche intoned. Mahler was a profound reader of Nietzsche, though of course they regrettably never met, in contrast to the fact that Mahler and Freud knew one another. Mahler 8 expresses first the previous understanding of existence, the Imago Dei of revealed religion at its most noble. In the second part, we have moved from God to Goethe, from the old metaphysics to that of our own age, and as murky as some of this millennial author’s metaphors can be, they nevertheless are themselves transfixed and transformed into an art that can be understood by all.

            The ‘marriage of light and dark’ is a hallmark of modernity. Yes, the twentieth century, so absolutely foreseen and understood by Mahler the aesthetic prophet, was indeed the century of death. Mahler 9 expresses this horrifying vision to us, but not as an acceptance thereof. It is a warning, an enlightenment or ‘Aufklarung’, an alarm bell, a Tocsin. It does not warn us of the imminence of death, for we already understand this condition as our own. It rather provides a caveat that tells us ‘do not make death into an immanence’. That is, do not allow death to ascend any higher than does life, do not let it attain an immanent domain into which we as a species-being would be swallowed. And though we have been on that brink more than a few times in past one hundred years or so, we have retained the sensibility that life should be ‘about’ joy, love, and even transcendence of itself, as contradictory as that may sound. If death is then somehow more ‘real’ to us, it bespeaks first of the distance between our realities and our ideals. The rationalization that one ends a life to save another is also real, if ethically strained. What is at stake is a conflict which remains at the horizontal level of the elements Mahler uplifted and combined. Differing opinions, beliefs, genders, cultural communities, competing nations, the perennial war of classes, all of these and others gainsay their very vocation through the medicated brevity they provide to their actors; ‘actors of their own ideals’, to once again reference Nietzsche.

            Mahler’s art speaks differently to these regards. Though the dialectic of elemental forces culminates in his final works, it was always present, something that commentators have sometimes forgotten. The contrast between distraction and focus, folk art and transcendental art in Mahler 1. The overcoming of death through love in the second and the dialogue between nature and culture in the third, Mahler’s ‘most personal of works’, as he himself put it, and the one in which Nietzsche’s work is most directly used. The dangerous decoy of feeling and atmosphere in the fourth, where we are placed on a too sunny shoreline, our backs turned to the conflict of interpretations by which human life lives its days, and the first signs of the ultimate dialectic between death, including the death of love, and life triumphant in the fifth. In the sixth, the death of the hero, the soteriological compassion and passion combined of the hero’s beloved companion, the menace of a too gendered socialization – in the third movement of Mahler 6, his own children, an older boy and a younger girl, play with one another and yet also play with the elemental forces of life and death corresponding to their essential Goethean ‘natures’ – and finally, just before we are taken into the depths of the very cosmos Mahler has opened up for us, the interplay and contrast between animal nature and the civil humanity of the salon culture in the seventh. Bird calls punctuating a forest trek, and yet chamber music to soothe an after dinner digestion, nothing escaped Mahler’s musical lens. That we are in his debt regarding our very understanding of the modern condition which is our shared predicament is an ongoing understatement.

            Even so, the towering figures of art, to a person, would not have suggested that their accomplishments represent the end of anything. Mortality as a creative force, life as the interregnum wherein creative work may be sought, and all of this as an unending principle of existence, this is the message of dialectically transcendental art. Mahler expresses this aspect of universal consciousness to us, through his singular works which retain their absolute relevance more than a century later. Who will be the next singular figure, the one from whom our own century’s music shall proceed apace? Perhaps it will be a woman this time, which is one important part of this intriguing question. But whomever it will be, the same forces will be at work in her efforts, and the same dialectic of transcendence will need to be accomplished. For us lesser beings, we too must come to grips with the polar forces animating our existence as both individuals and as a culture history writ into the wider, if still woefully provincial, consciousness of our time. If we take just one step in each of our lives to broaden that view, we will have advanced the maturity of our shared species and will have made ourselves more worthy of the gift that the art of ages has bestowed upon us.

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

On the Act of Understanding the Other

On the Act of Understanding the Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem of Allegorical Distance

The Problem of Allegorical Distance

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

One: A brief phenomenological pedigree of the concept of distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Religion of Criminality

The Religion of Criminality

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

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

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

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

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

In Defense of Pornography as a Theater of Human Freedom

Senator aims to curb ‘violent’ porn, pitches mandatory age verification for online sites | CBC News

In Defence of Pornography as a Theatre of Human Freedom

            In the Mad-TV satire ‘What Men Want’, a woman steps into the original Mel Gibson role as the gender-reversed script ambles along its expected course, this time with the woman being able to hear the men’s innermost thoughts in her own head. The answer is simple, and in one scene, where the narrator says farewell to her dying grandfather, she intones: ‘I’ll miss you grandpa’. He replies, ‘I’ll miss you too, sweetie – (then silently) But not as much as I’ll miss porn!’. For men in particular this could be interpreted as a ‘me too’ moment, but however that may be, I will argue in the following why society as a whole might well miss pornography and erotica more than we may at first imagine.

            My experience with pornography-erotica, call it what you will, tells me I am consuming an aspect of base culture. As theatre, mostly plotless and with acting culled from an underground high school yearbook activity, it receives a solid ‘D’ rating. As sex itself, it is dull, stereotyped, unimaginative and attempts to win one over – whatever that may entail – with grandstanding (mostly) youth showing off. It is no surprise that, as with athletics, anything that so intensely involves the body as a physical vehicle should be the basic preserve of youth. And sadly, in our society, this is mostly what youth have to offer; their pristine and charming physiques. Pornography is in all aspects juvenile, from its representations of youth by those far older to its motives. It is at source about money and not about sex, so it is also essentially dishonest. Given this, why defend it at all?

            Though it cannot be defended as an aesthetic object, I suggest that it must be defended as an ethical one. At first, this seems a contradiction. While art is likely the highest expression of human freedom, attaining a status that transcends even history by communicating perennial truths of the human condition to and from diverse periods and variations thereof, the portrayal of sexuality alone speaks at best only of desire and passion. What is missing in pornography is the Gestalt of humanity; its passions, some certainly present, but also its compassions, which are wholly absent; its desires yes, but also alongside, its anxieties. It is therefore also not an ethical ‘object’. But what pornography does contain is a potent ethical objection to the self-imposed limitations we humans have a tendency to exert upon ourselves and others. Working from the simple premise that if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out – turn off the e-device but only for thine own self – any ethical objection to that which serves to place social norms and institutional orders into perspective must be applied first to one’s own self-understanding. As soon as it attempts to dictate what others shalt or shalt not do it strays over the line of ethics and into the space of fascism. And this is precisely the line that any call for the policing of the viewing of pornography based on age-related limits is doing.

            Creeping fascism always plays the same tired game, and it is astonishing that, given recent history, we are still attracted to it. ‘I’m not trying to shut the porn industry down, I’m only trying to protect our children.’ In Canada, anyone twelve years old and above is legally entitled to have actual sex. There are a few reasonable age restrictions between twelve to fifteen, but the principal is clear. Youth (12-17) is its own category under Canadian law, as distinct from children (2-11). The fact that youth are no longer subject to being forced into surrogate sex with adults through corporal punishment underscores this separation. France remains a rare European country that has not banned this practice, so is it surprising that it is one country cited in the above article that seeks to ban viewing of sexual material by minors? For the French, apparently, youth are to remain sexual objects in the service of adults and can have little or no sexual agency of their own. Canadians are better than that, and by ‘better’, I mean, more ethical. The call to criminalize youth sexuality is both a regression and an expression of adult ressentiment specifically against the hard fact of the loss of our own youth and the future of humanity more generally. But by calling attention to the nostalgic and altogether deliberately naïve idea that young people are somehow not sexual beings and need to be ‘protected’ from sexuality until they are eighteen, the fascist attempts to take on the guise of guardian angel. ‘Save the children!’ He cries, from themselves, from evil adults, from evil itself!

            Anyone who agrees with this kind of suggestion is committing the ethical error of projecting one’s own vain desires onto young persons. Pornography too exhibits these desires – ‘discipline’ sites are the most obvious expression thereof; why else would we be attracted to the idea that youthful looking actors should portray the very minors we are supposedly seeking to protect? Why would such roles always be those that require such discipline: physical, sexual, and political? – and in so doing it provides young people with an important insight: we adults want to harm you because you represent all that we have lost, including beauty, guilelessness, openness, and spirit. We might even hate you, but alas, direct hate crime is already illegal in Canada and thus we must express our dark passions in another way: limit your freedom, your sexual liberation, your mischievous fun. Portray you as disobedient pests who, if you can no longer be beaten in reality, at least you can be allegorized as being beaten in virtuality. Just so, to suppress your knowledge of how we actually think of you is one of the core reasons for banning youth access to pornography.

            All fascists fear exposure of their true desires. These include ultimate control and the possession of a singular authority. They too know God is dead, but unlike more modest persons, they’re quite willing to fill in with the hope of making it a permanent situation. Hence the real ‘creeps’ in our society are not so much the relatively rare on-line child ‘groomers’ or molesters but rather the much less rare closet fascist who shows us just enough flesh so that we are distracted from noting the bones in behind him. He always begins with seemingly the most reasonable premise and this ‘foot in the door’ technique is also dishonest: ‘our children are vulnerable’ (And why so? Because we tend to control and baby them beyond their years lived). He uses seemingly reasonable analogies which turn out to be spurious: ‘films have limited access’ (In public only. Anyone can view an R-rated film without the fear of invasive criminalization in private and internet viewing is always already in private). He leaves out his true demands: ‘I’m only talking violent porn, here’ (in age-restricting porn sites you lose access to all porn, not just the minor percentage of it that might qualify as ‘violent’). He represents himself as reasonable: ‘I know this is a delicate topic’ (So was the so-called Jewish Question). The limits which are in place walk the actually delicate line between impinging upon hard-won and truly fragile democratic freedoms and the advice of child development experts and discourses: here’s some warnings and judge accordingly; some children might be disturbed by this or that material, others not, or yet some parents themselves might be warned off. Indeed, if I were to support age-restrictions on sexual material I would place them between the ages of 12 and 40. Anyone under or over those ages would not be permitted to view it. On the one hand because, according to the American Psychiatric Association, childhood ends at age 12 in important and specifically sexual ways – their definition of pedophilia, for instance, runs as ‘having a prurient interest in children under twelve’ – and on the other, mature adults need to focus on saving the planet and its life, including one another. Enough distraction, enough fantasy. Pornography is an education, of sorts, and it is at best trite to state that reality and fantasy are seldom the same thing. The world is in the shape it is in not because youth cannot distinguish between the two of them. Ask yourself why it took a sixteen year old with a disability to call our wider attention to the climate crisis? Ask your very much adult stockbroker, financier, captain of industry, or wonder of wonders, politician, why it wasn’t they who provided such an alert, amongst others. And then we can ask why yet other adults willingly take on the role of domineering Lydias – a role that is, with ironic relish, only barely admissible within the fantasy of discipline-oriented pornography – intent on correcting our bad habits without respect to our freedoms. An educative pornography might well include titles such as the all too obvious ‘Handmaid’s Tail’ by Marguerite Göttwood, in which such self-proclaimed defenders of ‘morality’ can bare yet more of their sorry selves.

            If one wanted to construct a genuine ethical argument against the decoys of contemporary social life, pornography included, I would be the first to entertain it. It would first have to outline the activities sanctioned by society that distract us from both the existential profundity of human life as well as the future of our collective existence. These are: organized sports (ironically a ‘must’ for youth, supposedly), all non-critical entertainment fictions and video games (Atwood not included), erotica/pornography, holidays both consumer and religious – and, speaking of reality and fantasy, is it really the case that we can distinguish such days? – conspiracy ‘theories’ of all kinds, obsessions with speculative, if, in principle interesting, topics such as extraterrestrial intelligence and ‘paranormal’ events, and the like. At the top of such a list of unethical attempts to divert our attention from serious global conditions would be our neurotic compulsion to rationalize our resentment of youth.

            If made, such an argument would be valid across the ethical board. But the message we send to both present-day youth and future society alike is that we, bereft of both conscience and foresight, have instead opted to suppress the curiosity, the spirit, the very existential verve of young people who, robbed of their nascent capacity to think for themselves through schools, media, and portions of the legal apparatus perhaps to be extended, will be unable to avoid the very fate we have already set out for them. This satisfies us as well, for it will not be we ourselves who have to live in the denuded future of a well-raped Earth. Youth will pay simply for being young.

            The call to limit youthful experience of the world in any way, no matter how juvenile the material or knowledge, only adds to the sense that we have given up on an ethical human future. Shutting it down ahead of time, exerting a pre-emptive strike against the coming freedom of world youth, is the evil privilege of adulthood. And adults are, in fact, old enough to know that we either use it or lose it. We betray our truer selves as maliciously resentful oversized children in its use.

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

Who was that Unmasked Man?

Who was that Unmasked Man?

            The concept of authority is a much troubled one for we moderns. In the previous age, power amongst human beings was certainly brandished in a more subjective fashion, often based on personalist traits including the apparently vanished ‘charisma’, which the social scientist Max Weber implied could not exist in modernity. There was a corresponding paucity of rational mechanisms for the exertion of power by way of achieved or accrued status. Heritable station, even caste, was enough to endow some and deny many the necessary stakes in social life with which to maintain a viable existence. Though we are suspicious of authority in all its forms, we do pride ourselves in leveling the field to an extent that most persons in wealthy countries can at least live without daily fear of sickness and death.

            Why then, if we are aware of this transformation from what now appears to us as the patent unreason of a culture masking itself as a fraudulent nature – perhaps the final residue of this older worldview pertains to eugenics and ‘race’ theory, though any reductivist applied science skirts it at its peril; neuroscience, sociobiology, cognitive therapy – do we also consistently maintain an oft unreasoned skepticism regarding the space and status of modern authority? Why, given the seemingly obvious sensibility that an illness can be transmitted in this way or that, would some of us shun the equally obvious precautions? More than this, immediately declare that such passing modifications to daily life are a symptom of a deeper and darker recess within which authority conspires to dominate the world at large?

            The ‘strange bedfellows’ of politics aside, the resistance to the wearing of masks and practicing the so-called ‘social distance’ hails from the margins of mass democratic statehood. Small time evangelicals, neo-fascist militias, conspiracy ‘theorists’ of many stripes and streaks, even some neo-conservatives who feel abandoned by their chosen political representatives populate this pastiche. Who, exactly, are these fellow citizens, and why do they appear to differ from the vast majority of us along these sudden lines? Is the anti-mask affair merely a convenient hitching post where a number of unrelated horses may be tied during a tavern tabernacle? Is it a question of metaphor; a mask denies part of our identity, for instance, or is likened to a political muzzle? It certainly hasn’t taken long for advertisers to take advantage of this additional apparel ‘accessory’, given many masks now sport logos of various kinds. If there is a semi-conscious sense that a mask inhibits my personhood, many people have taken to creative work-arounds that still proclaim something about themselves they think it is worth others’ while to know, kind of like a removable tattoo.

            But not everyone. Authority in its contemporary issue is at once loosed from above and below alike. Above due to the apparent absence of godhead, and below, due to the problems of direct political representation. One the one hand, there is no ‘higher’ authority than the State, a difficult pill to swallow for many of us, myself as a thinker included. I would like to be able to say, ‘no, truth is itself the highest authority’, or more murkily, ‘art’, or ‘the good’. That the neighbor takes precedence over the socius, that my justice overtakes that of the law, that my ethical life exists beyond the general ken of rationalized morals, and so on. Aside from its claim to possess a monopoly of force, the State also declares itself to be the final court of both accusation and appeal. On the other hand, its presence, like the Leviathan, is to be taken as given and might only be indirectly questioned through regime change by way of the electoral process. Seen in its naked fraudulence, already less dressed than its predecessor the Church, the State is easy to unmask. That we understand our governments to wear the mask of responsibility – and sometimes even live up to this general theater in a convincing manner – is to also comprehend that they are not what they seem to be. So if the one who already wears the mask and is known to be other than it is demands that we too now don this same article, is that not to tell us that we must become yet more like the State in our private lives?

            We do hear the cliché refrain about the ‘nanny state’ within the fragmented voices of the anti-mask huzzah. Ask the same people about EI and healthcare etc. and there might be a different response. But bracketing this ever-present irony, I think that these protesters must view the State as something that is mysterious, a persona like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, to use some old-fashioned examples, but one which is magnified into a monstrous form. The Lone Ranger, from whose juvenile script the title of this piece is paraphrased, is, with further irony, a persona who would in fact appeal to the anti-maskers. They appear to see themselves as more individual than the rest of us, more self-reliant, more heroic, and evidently also more immune, even to non-human forms of life. If we were merely jaded, the entire affair would appear only as an ongoing cliché, the evil state making yet more demands upon freedom-loving individuals.

            Not only is this dull it is also dimwitted. One, no member of mass society can claim to be free in this way. Our individual freedom in the public realm is immensely limited, simply because of the existence of others. Respecting this is in fact an act of free will and a recognition of it as a principle of human life, as in doing so, we grant the freedom of others to also reassure us of our human status. To do otherwise is to set oneself apart from one’s fellows, however and otherwise strange they may be, and claim that only a certain few should be ‘free’ and the rest of us can go to the wall. Two, if there truly is a serious concern about civil liberties that too is addressed by not by making exceptions but by giving the other the courtesy to live with the best chance of being unassailed by health concerns. Freedom, in its ethical essence, consists of being a vehicle for the freedom of others.

            That the State must demand this of us can only be put down our own lack of ethical awareness. But organizing a symptom of such interaction amongst citizens is not the same as defining what freedom is or is not. A mask is metaphoric also in this way; it does not pretend to be the reality of mass society, only its appearance; anonymous and impersonal, generally non-responsible and always flirting with authoritarianism. The reality of our existence remains, as ever, within our own conscience. No decisions are being taken from us. When I forget my mask in my car on the way to the grocery store I duly return and retrieve it. I have done so uncounted times already as we are creatures of daily habit. Why I do so is another matter. I want to be one momentary vehicle for the freedom of the other. I do not want to ‘set an example’, ‘toe the line’, mock the other or chide her for her own neglect. And I do not desire to make myself mysterious; indeed, I am the less so because others observe my action as consistent with the otiose demands of the day. I have nothing to hide in wearing a mask, in the same way I might wear clothes, or that I might drive defensively, or that I limit my glance at an ‘attractive’ woman to a good-natured and discreet one-off. Perhaps I could do yet more to this last regard and many others, but the mask-wearing should be seen in the same light as all the other trifling things we do to make life easier and to let others know that we’re on their side no matter how ludicrous the effect.

            Freedom is itself a modern conception. One cannot imagine that modernity turns its back on its own native child. It is true that this birth, so cherished, has not lived up to its expectations, but what child does? Freedom is such a recent idea that one cannot expect it to manifest its historical genius overnight and over against the countless eons within which even its herald could not exist. I would suggest that anyone who has doubts about authority and feels his freedom impinged upon examine the critical threshold over which conformity becomes truly dangerous. I’d also like to say, ‘I’ll let you know’, but in fact each of us is charged with the task of confronting authority at every turn. It’s only the professional job of the thinker to do so; more profoundly, it is the birthright of all human beings. More than this, it is the working side of human freedom, which is absolutely not a given, as is the State, and which can only be made real through our being’s resoluteness, its being-ahead, and its receptivity to the call of conscience. Freedom, like history more widely, is both a gift and a task. The unmasked man of resistance in reality resists the work necessary for freedom to become authentic. Only in this authenticity can we in turn unmask any fraudulent attempt at truth, the enforced freedoms of institutions, for instance, or more personally, the beliefs we imagine overtake those same institutions, almost all of which arose in ages wherein human freedom was non-existent. The unimpressive irony of the anti-mask associates betrays its lack of historical consciousness precisely along these lines; that it seeks freedom from modern authority through the use of older and likely imaginary authorities that would, if left unconstrained, demolish every last bit of human freedom we have painstakingly attained over the past four centuries. Thus the mask I wear protects me from far more than just a virus.

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

My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl

My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl

            The deep contempt with which the still noble world of antiquity treated the Christian belongs just where the instinctual repugnance for the Jews belongs today: it is the hatred of the free and self-confident classes for those who make their way forward unobtrusively and combine shy, awkward gestures with an absurd sense of self-worth. (Nietzsche, notebook 10, Autumn, 1887, italics original).

            In the spring of 1995 I shared some BC ferry seats with German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and her long time partner Horst Kettner. They were simply two unobtrusive members of a large tour bus filled with Germans visiting Vancouver Island. What little of the language I had at the time told me they were discussing local scuba diving and underwater marine film, which was then the vogue in her varied film making career. We stared at one another for a few moments when we debarked but I was far too shy to say anything, assuming her English was as poor as was my French. I had seen, a few months beforehand, the documentary ‘Power of the Image’ which was an awkward biography of her professional life, though it allowed me to immediately identify them aside from the conversation at hand. Knowing who she was imparted to her a presence that no one else in my experience has possessed. Of course, this was as much a projection as anything to do with a larger history. I was so taken aback at this encounter that I spoke of it with no one for many years, and it faded from memory.

            But it ‘never goes away’, just as Sir Ian McKellen’s character in Stephen King’s ‘Apt Pupil’ reminded the young protagonist regarding fascist yearnings. That hour or so on the ferry was silently awkward and in the end, irrelevant to anything in my personal life at the time. Now, a quarter century later and some seventeen years after her death in 2003, I only find myself returning to it given my own recent work on the fascism of meanings in fantasy writing and in liberal humanistic philosophy. I never had agreed with Sontag, whom I use regularly as a source, that Riefenstahl’s directing somehow embodied the so-called ‘fascist aesthetic’. No, we do, as a whole, embody such a form. The sub-title to the 2-part ‘Olympia’, Riefenstahl’s film devoted to the 1936 Summer Games – the version that invented the torch run, amongst other ongoing things – is loosely given as ‘festival (or celebration) of peoples, festival of beauty’ which is essentially what the Olympics are and have always been. Riefenstahl nailed it because she herself as a youth had embodied these qualities, as judged by the esthetics of the time. Not, aesthetics, which is the more serious and formal term for the philosophical study of art forms. There is no fascist ‘aesthetic’, even as there remains an undeniable fascist esthetic – the look of beauty, its identity, its genders, its glamor and the ressentiment that attends to its every move. The supermodel of today is the Christian of the first century Levant, the fashion critic, the Jew.

            Nietzsche’s texts were notoriously reconstituted by the Reich, but not all his work needed such over-writing. Hitler was both shy, awkward, and oddly unassuming, in both his sensibilities and in his gestures. They come across today as absurdities, and John Cleese makes a better ‘Mr. Hilter’ than did Hitler himself. Daily overcoming social anxiety, Hitler memorized his speeches, endlessly practicing his body language and facial expressions in front of the mirror, and one can only imagine resenting his inconsequential stature, provincial birthright and all the rest of it. It is a feeling that many of us must also overcome, for who is born at the center of things who then seeks to become the center of everything?

            Man to woman, someone like Hitler could never have landed a date with someone like Riefenstahl, one of the dream-girls of her day. And yet history brought them together and sometimes in close quarters. Hitler, with just that ‘absurd sense of self worth’ imagined he understood art, and he certainly put much energy into what abilities he did have – his watercolor renderings were decent for an architectural student though very much out of fashion when in 1907, he was rejected in favor of Oskar Kokoschka in the entrance competition to the Vienna art academy – and ‘aesthetics’ dominated the Reich from its attempts at stolen nobility right down to its very uttermost depths of human evil. Yet this too, the ‘saving’ of the world by eliminating those who stain it, remains with us. In this current era of renewed naissance of nationalism and patriotism of party, are we not embodying something rather more than just the look of what is deemed to be beautiful?

            It almost seems that none of the larger geopolitical lessons of the second World War have stuck with us, and we are approaching a biographical threshold over which an absence proclaims itself: that no one living will have lived through that now alien period. It is a limen that creates history out of what was until that point still memory. It is, from the perspective of human experience that can be personally and intimately shared, a most dangerous moment. The only response we have to confront this aleatory lacunae is by way of art. Riefenstahl’s service was more than regrettable, but her films themselves remain as relevant as ever. But not in that they in turn served to help convince many Germans of the time that their path had become one of super-destiny and that the ‘natural’ form of response to any ‘lower’ form was contempt, just as Nietzsche had suggested some half-century earlier.

            Though in the intervening decades it was the German social scientist Max Weber who corrected Nietzsche’s perhaps metaphoric language regarding the origins of Christianity and its relationship with the ancient Hebrews – in the Roman Mediterranean, Christianity was actually sourced in the artisan classes and spread upwards from there, not downwards; it was not a ‘slave religion’ in any real sense – such an understanding could only direct further obloquy against the ‘pariah community’ of the nascent Jewish diaspora. With further irony, Hitler’s movement was limited to awkwardly skulking along politically for over a decade. Historically, one can as ever hope that the same may be said of it; a moment when human reason took a recess. But this is naïve.

            What are the movements of the margins in our own time? Who is attracted to them and why? Where do they arise and how? And are they merely nostalgic retreads of lost historical causes or are they rather symptoms of a society and a world that continues to structure its life and consciousness too closely to that which allowed fascism to grasp the center of things to its paltry self before being superseded by the slightly more subtle neo-colonial ambitions of the victorious powers?

            At once, we can do two things, each of us: one, the next time we are tempted to look with contempt at another human being, step back from doing so. No one person can be the lightning rod for historical ressentiment. Riefenstahl neither as an artist nor as a person can be accountable for the way that I might stare down my nose at the so-called ‘ignoble’ of humanity. And two, we must recognize that our shared contempt for those whose marginal existences has driven them to entertain the worst of our humanity can only aid their cause. Instead, we can yet take both core principles of Judaism and Christianity to be our guides; the one, that we as a species are and remain the ‘chosen people’, and the other, that we are thence placed in the existential position of having to choose one another through the act of the neighbor. It is only through this act, the ‘libertinage of compassion’, that our world will survive itself, let alone its lack of memory of the chance encounters through which historical consciousness is in majority made.

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