Why is Science Doubted?

Why is Science Doubted?

            As I stand upon the earth, I appear to be motionless. The breeze ruffles the leaves, the clouds approach and hang breathlessly above. A car passes briskly by, and then, far up in the sky, an airplane does the same. To the unaided senses, things move upon and around the earth, as I might if I take my next step, but the earth is itself static and unmoving. Even the erosion of eons or the explosion of a sudden Vulcanism, the torrid heat and desolate drought, the sodden rain and blistering wind, are effects upon the earth, movements that alter its image but do nothing to its being. And it’s being seems nothing other than eternal.

            More so even than the firmament, for the stars do appear to move! And surely I am, in my widest definition, part of what they orbit or move past. Until the Ionian school in Ancient Greece, the earth was thought not merely unmoved but immovable, the center of things, the focus of creation. Today, we are decentered, constructed not created, in constant motion both in life and in character. It is thus, in this day of anxious doubt and in this tomorrow of anticipated unknowing, a most pressing question to examine how we as a species have come from one place to the other, from the center to the margins, from Being to mere beings.

            Yet this is a question that must be approached from both places at once, as it were. It takes little enough to imagine the perspective of our predecessors, and indeed, the very fragility of modern scientific knowledge when placed beside simple sense perception – and this aside from customary bigotry and personal experience – is what puts today’s self-understanding at such risk of consistent, even constant, doubt. Even so, it is more than germane to imagine the center, to formulate Being, for it has remained a magnetic value for us even if it has not retained the same cultural status it once possessed. This is the larger question, of course. The doubting of science at once proceeds towards, and emanates from, the resonant ideal of Being.

            There is a list of commonplace traits to which the ‘anti-science’ person holds, but for the moment, let us cast the net more widely to see what characteristics are present for anyone struck by the knowledge presented by the sciences. The following is not meant as either an exhaustive or a ranked compendium, but surely each of these traits must be present for anyone who doubts science as a source of rationally reliable and cross-culturally valid truth:

            1. My personal experience contradicts the findings of science, especially those of the human sciences.

            2. Science always seems to be changing ‘its’ mind about what is a fact and what isn’t. How can I trust it?

            3. Scientists themselves appear to regularly disagree about not only the validity of this or that finding, but also their general value.

            4. And speaking of value, how do I translate the often acutely picayune and abstruse knowledge of science into a language and experience I can understand?

            5. My cultural upbringing does not admit to human truth as the ultimate arbiter of the cosmos.

            6. Science is itself beholden to political and corporate interest in the questions it asks in the first place. How can I trust its claims to objectivity?

            7. Finally, it seems you have to either be a genius or at least well-heeled even to become a scientist. If I am neither, as the vast majority of people are not, how can I simply hand over my life to those who don’t know what it’s like to be me?

            The ‘feeling’ each of these difficult objections to the sciences brings to us is one of passive mistrust ever verging into a more active distrust. At once these are questions of loyalty, of literacy, and of location both social and personal. Let us then take them one by one, in the above order, with a view to examining their premises as well as suggesting possible alternatives. In doing so, we will not be simply defending a popular view of science, nor will we be attempting to construct an ontology that will forever be unassailable to such questions or yet others. At base, however, the question of Being is unavoidable, and so we will in the end have to face up to the problem of what can in fact, and more or less, function for our mortal existence as a source of reliable knowledge.

            1. My personal experience contradicts the findings of science, especially those of the human sciences. At the heart of this doubt is the problem of intersubjectivity. Each of us knows our own heart, but equally, we also know that the other’s heart differs from our own. My experience will not be yours, and in many contexts, cannot be or can never be. As a white male, I cannot know ‘what it is like’ to be a non-white female, and so on. And if the devil is in the details, God will be thus found in the abstractions. It is at either ends of the human existential spectrum that I must look for common ground. She and I remain human beings to one another just as we both love Bruckner. It is mostly the mid-range, shall we say, of our shared humanity that casts us up as different from one another. This is not at all fatal, though it is a too fashionable thing to overemphasize this middle range of values and validities – I am a white, heterosexual male of European consciousness and background who is highly educated and relatively wealthy when compared globally – and make it the sole arbiter of my being-in-the-world. As the bumper sticker states, ‘The person with the most toys still dies’. My suggestion to this first doubt is to look for that which makes us the same as one another, for these contrasting poles are the two spaces in which science in fact operates. The very small and the very large, the devils and the gods.

            The question of the human sciences is less simple, of course, because it’s very subject matter, ourselves, occupies mostly that very middle ground wherein difference is highlighted. But even here, such differences that do exist need not be seen as divisive. Indeed, the very understanding of ‘social location’, first presented as thematic in the study of humanity by Vico in 1725 and made proverbial in Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’ in the 1880s, is necessary to expose the facts of historical and cultural existence. But beyond this, the most important thing for each of us to recall to themselves is that I am but one perceiver. That when I am confronted with a social fact that contradicts my personal experience, it simply means that others, many others, have experienced the world differently than I. To not accept this is tantamount to denying that these others even exist at all.

            2. Science always seems to be changing ‘its’ mind about what is a fact and what isn’t. How can I trust it? The methods of science are classically understood to be ‘self-correcting’. What does this mean? It is old hat to trot out all of the historical shifts in perception a better equipped and more technically astute science has undergone. That Newtonian physics is a kind of local charade and quantum mechanics the truth of things. There is no need to cite the history of science as over against its historical mechanism. The underlying fact of science is not in fact scientific at all. This fact is that science has been and remains a human and thus an historical endeavor. This not only in the sense that it is we humans who ‘do’ science, also old hat, but more penetratingly, that through the doing of science we have discovered, astonishingly, a manner in which to construct a bridge over the chasm of difference represented by the diversity of historical epochs as well as across the polyglot of contemporary cultures. Science is yet historical through and through, but what emanates therefrom is, at least for a time and from the human perspective, transcendent of once again the middle range differences that divide we contemporaries from our predecessors, no matter how historically recent or distant.

            Indeed, to make a distinction between the historical and the temporal is one of science’s chief aims. The first is all about difference, and this can be seen with no greater gravity than the fact that it is at the foot of history upon which all moralities fall. But the second is about sameness. The Sumerian was a human being like myself, able to contemplate his existence in much the same manner as do I, gazing up at the stars and imagining the heavens yet beyond. Feeling the basic desire of a living existence, expressing himself in art and in craft alike, and having to make meaningful his mortality. He ate and slept, he made love and he cared for others. He is my historically very distant cousin but he is my temporal sibling. Between the basic method of science as something which can overcome many of its own biases given enough time, and the equally basic subject matter of science which it treats as if it were an object-class alone and not a singular ‘thing’, we can suggest that this second doubt regarding the validity of science across time is overblown. Most importantly, each demographic needs a slightly different knowledge base to fulfill its generational duties, and the same can be said for each wider historical epoch. It is a mere device of the comic book artist to wonder ‘what if’ the ancients had had modern technology and so on. What if myth and reality were combined? What if becoming a hero as a human meant that one also had to become a God?

            Far more so than even doubt, much of the simple disinterest in science falls along these lines. It is patently not only not mythic, its very essence stands against all myth. Its subject matter is not heroic, but rather basic. It seeks what is normative and what is regular, and not what is individuating and extraordinary, No, that is the realm of art, not science. And today, mostly, the realm of popular art at that.

            3. Scientists themselves appear to regularly disagree about not only the validity of this or that finding, but also their general value. Once again, this is mostly a function of how science ‘works’ in its overarching method, in contrast to the more singular methods devoted to specific forms of science, biology or chemistry, or physics and so on. It is not surprising that the chemist would value her discoveries, or the history of their own discipline, ahead of those or that of the biologist. This kind of valuation has in fact little to do with science and places the scientist back into the day to day humanity of personal sensibilities. It is the case that a personal bias can perform a deviant function within scientific investigation, but this ‘personality’ of the scientist is at once a great boon to the making of novel discoveries. The disagreement we hear of in the public everyday realm is a necessary function of science at its best. One, experiments must be corroborated, duplicated, interrogated again and again. We know that singular data might be misleading. We know that scientists are as human as are we ourselves. Disagreement, even outright conflict in the scientific community is something that must be encouraged by those of us who are outsiders. The more such questioning, the more such back and forth, the more assured the rest of us can be that science is indeed living up to its reputation as a self-correcting dealer of insights and not merely a numbly reproductive facilitation of the same old bigotries.

            That, I think, addresses the question of interpersonal validity. To be scientifically valid is to be ‘factual’ in the broadest sense possible given the conditions of experiment. That what this result or outcome states can be relied upon to hold not only in differing contexts, but as well for different persons. None of this, however, attains the pitch of being able to satisfy our questions related to value. And this is a good thing, for at the very point value enters the discussion science itself must leave the floor. It is up to society at large to decide upon the value of facts. The person who harbors doubt number three along the lines of value is actually being irresponsible in shoving this work back onto the shoulders of scientists alone. No, they have done their part of the knowledge generating bargain, and it is time for the rest of us to step in and step up.

            But the question of value, once taken on by the wider community, of course presents itself as a complex problem. At once it must borrow from what is seen as customarily valuable, while understanding that these new data coming from the sciences may force a reckoning upon custom. Over time, this potential conflict has overtaken all that was once valued at the cultural level, and thus the suspicion that underlays doubt number three may be traced to a much deeper sentiment: how can it be that all I know is wrong?

            This immediately takes us to the center of our next listed doubt:

            4. And speaking of value, how do I translate the often acutely picayune and abstruse knowledge of science into a language and experience I can understand? There are actually two responses here. The first is simple: the language of science, applied mathematics, is by itself untranslatable into any other context and this is actually how it must be. We can overcome any angst we may feel about this necessary distance by working backwards, from my experience in daily life to its scientific description. There is an element of the ‘need to know’ here, just as Sagan reminded us that if we had to consciously adjudicate the techniques and biochemistry of our digestion we would surely starve to death. A black hole at a distance is a fascinating cosmic phenomenon. It only becomes a threat at a certain proximity and that only over a certain period of time, usually equally cosmic in scope. The language of science thus must at once maintain its aloofness to everyday description and experience, but it must also bridge the gap between that experience and structure. What do I mean by this second task?

            One’s experience may seem to be intensely personal, and though it is that to us, if we live long enough and meet enough other people, we begin to realize that not only can others supply their own intensity to life but that what I held as precious and beyond the sacred is actually quite commonplace and well shared after all. Thus it is to the structural or ’secular’ quality of human experience that science appeals. By this I am not referring to the casual distinction made my ideologues between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. Science is not a religion nor is it a politics. With these others, along with art and philosophy, science takes its distinct place among the widest human categories of endeavor without being blended into any other. Instead, ‘secular’ experience is simply that which is shared and also known to be shared. As William James reminded us, the most acute quandary for the visionary is how to communicate her experience to others. No matter its original intensity, if I don’t know what you know, there’s an end to it.

            This is one of the beauties, if you will, of science. It is the only ‘vision’ humanity has generated that in fact can be shared by all, though the ‘intensity’ of such a sharing may differ and indeed must differ, according to our valuation and technical knowledge, and this even within the sciences themselves. A mathematician will see the elegance of the proof, a high energy physicist will see the enactment of a slice of basic reality, the biologist will see the molecular architecture of the gene, the sociologist the impassioned expression of a ‘type’ of person, the philosopher perhaps a form of consciousness written into the worlding of the world. Science is shareable precisely because it does not present a traditional vision at all. It is rather a series of interrelated and mutually imbricated perspectives, each with its own authentic value and from each emanating a way in which to understand our already shared human consciousness in its more cosmic guise. This is how daily experience is itself already part of science and not at all distanced from it.

            5. My cultural upbringing does not admit to human truth as the ultimate arbiter of the cosmos. Though this may seem to be the most troubling of listed doubts, at both the level of bedeviled detail and that of divine abstraction, it is less fatal than it so appears. For modernity, the non-teleological character of both cosmic and organismic evolution has been overstated as the leverage by which God could be murdered. In fact, science makes no claims regarding the existence of transcendental beings. This is rather a question for religion, myth, and art. Evolution does not define its own ‘original’ creation, no matter how many cycles the ‘big-bang’ oriented universe has progressed through. The fact that science cannot define a starting point makes the entire question a non-starter. In a word, evolution does not obviate creation, it just sets it back a few jots.

            On top of this, science is the one human creation that does not admit to purely human truth. In that, it ‘reveals’ itself, excuse the term, as a child of religion. If science had an ‘upbringing’ in the individuated sense, it too would tell us that there is a truth to the cosmos that lies far beyond those of human consciousness, though not necessarily beyond the future ken of that same consciousness or developments thereof and therein. Anyone who drives a car or a golf ball assumes upon the same science as reveals evolution to be an ongoing fact. The fact that one can be a creationist and a golfer is also not fatal, either to one’s character or to one’s epistemology. Though the best outlook of a scientist is the same as that of the philosopher, an agnostic, there are many perfectly objective scientists who imagine that they are simply exposing the truth of creation, a truth already present before human experience but also discoverable through human acumen. And there is nothing in science per se that proves them incorrect. In short, each of us, as human beings, is at once partial to the truth of things in that we can know only what our own historical period can know, and impartial, in that we as individuals stand aloof to any kind of truth and must needs do so because, as Krishnamurti stated, such a wider ‘truth is a pathless land’, and it cannot be found along any known way or track, nor by any creed nor crucis. Science reveals truths about the cosmos, and these are, by definition, not human. In that, it differs in no important sense from any ‘upbringing’ that casts up the value of truth upon an equally non-human source.

            6. Science is itself beholden to political and corporate interests in the questions it asks in the first place. How can I trust its claims to objectivity? This doubt is actually much more serious than the one preceding. Because basic scientific research is so unutterably expensive, it can come as no surprise that the only institutions capable of funding it are corporations and governments. And in almost every case, such institutions or their denizens have a vested interest in not only the questions that are to be investigated, but in the results that may, or may not, come from such investigations. It is often the case that the rest of us must simply be willing to take the ad hoc outcomes of an agenda-rich applied science as we can, whether in medicine, engineering, cybernetics, psychology or even demographics or economics. This in itself is not a total loss, because both private and public sector giants are out to please most of the people most of the time; in other words, this means that much of the time you and I will fall into that rubric of who is ‘the most’, and thus see some partial benefit from agenda research.

            Alongside this, it is not only always possible, but even likely, that over the course of investigating a specific issue or phenomenon that other data will be revealed which in turn point to another vital discovery. In creating an anti-viral we may discover the genetic structure of an entire class of organisms. In creating a new material we may note that the way we currently build things out of older materials can be improved. A new source of energy might require a new kind of collector or turbine which in turn has other uses. So agenda science is not perfectly blind to the more general scientific process sometimes referred to as ‘pure’. Many subsequent grants come out of an originally quite narrowly assigned task. And this is the case in every facet of the sciences, including those which study humans themselves. Between the sense that agenda-driven research must generally adhere to available market, whether that be consumer or political or both, and the fact of the scientific process itself, we should not despair that most science that ‘gets done’ is funded by vested interests. For better or worse, we the people mostly share those self-same interests.

            And this wider fact brings the issue of objectivity to the fore. Max Weber arguably remains the greatest mind on this job, and in spite of being also arguably the greatest expert on human relations, he was unequivocal in his own argument that we cannot leave the big decisions to those same experts. In this, at once he was stating that science has its place and it is one of utility alone, but more profoundly, that we need not get too hung up on the much-vaunted ‘objectivity’ outside of the realm of science precisely due to the objective fact that our diverse but nonetheless shared humanity experiences the world subjectively and not in some manner transcendental to life. And in that life, the expert, including the scientist, is a human like ourselves, with values, subjectivities, objections, and who may be subjected, objected to, and even devalued. But what we cannot be is invalidated, for we are not objects in the purely scientific sense, just as we are not logical constructs in that philosophical. So the doubt that questions my ‘trust’ in scientific objectivity is actually a self-doubt; it is not about science at all. To place this doubt back into science is the same kind of irresponsible action that we saw shoved the work of valuation, and specifically the kind which opens up onto self-understanding, back onto the scientist, calling upon her to become an ‘expert’ beyond her means.

            7. Finally, it seems you have to be either a genius or at least well-heeled even to become a scientist. If I am neither, as the vast majority of people are not, how can I simply hand over my life to those who don’t know what it’s like to be me? This doubt follows necessarily upon the lack of responsibility we take when we engage in declaiming valuation and self-understanding and pass it back to the scientist or the specific science as a discourse of expertise and authority. Yes, very few of us can become quantum mathematicians, but we as a world society do not need a bevy of such people given the subject matter at hand. There needs rather to be, over a sequence of generations, merely a quorum of chefs in this or that particular scientific kitchen to make the cosmic menu available to us. But it is we who must choose what to consume and indeed, make it digestible to our diverse druthers. And genius is itself too often very narrowly defined. Just as we cannot proclaim a Stephen Hawking to be the ‘smartest human in the world’, we cannot declaim our own personal wit as part of what imagines and thence constructs genius in others. No God survives the loss of His believers. Just so, no genius works in an asocial vacuum. It does not help, at all, that popular media both celebrates and mocks the so-gifted person as some kind of autistic freak, narrowly brilliant and thus both unthreatening to morality while at the same time being great fun at the burlesque big-top of resentful reckoning.

            That said, it is an ongoing problem that science is mostly a realm of educated elites. I say this not in any sense that one cannot but be highly literate in specific aspects of mathematics and science in order to attain these lofty heights of discovery and even application, but rather that we live in a highly stratified society that does not always bring all of its actual talent to the table. There is, in a word, a gulf between the actual and the available, when it comes to gift and future ability. We cannot know where the next ‘genius’ is to be found, just as we cannot predict where the next discovery of such genius will be had. But doubt number seven orients itself too quickly to an issue which can be solved quite simply by continuing to open up educational opportunity for more marginal persons, especially those who are young. And the only way we ‘hand over’ our lives to science is if we ourselves refuse to take responsibility for them in the light of science. We are free to evaluate both its specific fruits and its general methods, though as once again Sagan more famously cautioned, we should not eagerly accept the former while at once so easily dismissing the latter.

            More than any of this, we can respond to this final doubt by reminding ourselves that in fact scientists are enough ‘like us’ to not escape the basic human and social challenges that come with living on in the world. This aspect of such a response can have its ‘hallmark’ tones – scientists are parents, are workers, are children, are golfers even – but it is more salient to call to mind its aspect which is Whitmanesque; the scientist sleeps, the scientist loves, the scientist lives, the scientist dies.

            The pattern of popular doubts regarding the place of the sciences in both social and personal life is based upon our unwillingness to practice, strictly speaking, a very much non-scientific form of self-questioning. It is not within the ambit of science but rather within that of philosophy to which we should bring these existential questions. A lack of understanding of what we are as human beings will inevitably bring to any human endeavor a similar incompetency. It is therefore to the ‘illiteracy of the self’ that I, as a philosopher would commend immediate attention. Where did my values come from? Why do I value this or that and perhaps deny this or that other value? How can this other seem so different from me that I cannot even speak of them, let alone to them? In asking such questions and many like others, I think you will find that your doubts about science are both a function of your self-doubt and the manner in which our culture, both popular and literate, portrays both science and those who practice it. In non-scientifically excavating the assumptions we each of us are too comfortable holding to ourselves, often at the expense of the other, we become at the personal level as the scientist already is at that cosmic. This is why the study of the cosmos is at once a ‘personal journey’ and one that takes our very person completely out of the equation, for it is a journey that compels beings to contemplate Being. That we can do this, within our abbreviated consciousness and inside the brevity of human history, is the truer meaning of both genius and humanity alike.

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

Is Wholly Rational Action Realizable?

Is Wholly Rational Action Realizable?

This to you, who lives beyond my reach and ken

                        Yet I love thee as I would the one who strains for me alone

                        I cannot breast such love as my heart now and then

                        Breaks itself upon the shore that also crushes bone

                        No wonder you exult the air above, the night that is beyond men

                        And women both, and all those in between that set in stone

                        No longer will love be known as ever that

                        Extant between the fair and fairer seen

                        And I am but the herald of this wider, longer matte

                        Laying underneath all two-souled color been

                        These souls have given up their claim, their pat

                        Clamor against which I have plugged by ears atween

                        Enter thus! I both command and commend to thee

                        So that we may port your soul and souled asunder

                        Split as is the heavens by the lighted scree

                        Split as were my eyes and ears and lips by thunder

                        Such storms as these will ever question me

                        So I shall ne’er accept the loot of blunder

                        Enter thus, I beg you in loving supplication

                        With my tears, my sweat, my mucus, juice and blood alike

                        Even my offal, but not awful urination

                        Meant no disrespect but only that with I would strike

                        Down all who overlook our human situation

                        And to this I call you to return to us your endless Reich.

            In the quotidian of my life, I long for transcendence. Such are the days that have been that the days that will be are resented. But what of the days that might be? What of the moments that seem to uplift our consciousness into another kind of day altogether? What are their source? Can we conjure the magical from the mundane, the sacred from the profane, the very order of nature from the historic disorder of culture?

            In the verse, the speaker ‘begs’, calls attention to her ‘loving supplication’ which is surpliced over with all manner of bodily disjecta membra, not in the service of a guttural paean but rather to state that every aspect of her being is involved in the orison. But at first we are called to attend the place of the one who is called and is to be called. She herself is so distant, so removed from the day to day that her very reality is doubted. She is ‘beyond’ both my reach, my experience, and as such it is also implied that such a beyond is separated from the doings of both men and women alike. This object of desire must be a creature of the night air, a being who is thus never at risk of shipwreck, as the speaker tells of herself. And how then to bridge that chasm? Give birth to a higher form of love, a love hitherto unknown and even unknowable. This novel love will no longer hold ‘between the fair and fairer’, and within its embrace those whose souls were separate give over their patent claim to be mere individuals. No, here they are to be only one thing, and yet this is not yet real, which is why the speaker casts herself as merely a ‘herald’ and one who has had to ‘plug her ears’ against the divisive character of previous human relations. The speaker vows to not be either distracted by a base show of emotions, ‘split as were my eyes and ears and lips’, nor by even nature’s display of forces which seem as well to lie beyond the mundane sphere. She also cannot be bought by illusion, the ‘loot of blunder’. Finally, she returns to her own humanity and realizes that this higher love is in fact part of our shared birthright that in turn cannot be ‘overlooked’ and to which she commands the return of that eternal birthright and its ‘endless Reich’.

            Weber reminds us that any interpretation of human action in the world must call itself to attend to the fact that in each action there is a representation of something (‘The Nature of Social Action, 1922). And thus in each, there is also a herald, if you will, of the judgment of others upon not only how well I have represented this or that normative or superlative value but whether or not the value is itself worthy of my representation rather than one better, one lesser, or yet none at all. In calling across the ages to the thing that is most desired, be it a deity, a beloved friend, a kindred spirit long deceased, a work of art, we must first be more or less certain that how we value this ‘object’ is how we might imagine it valuing itself. What is the self-valuation of the object of desire? How does it, in other words, desire itself to be desired?

            The most common example of the disjunction of such a calling occurs when we fall in love with one who cannot love us in return, or will not. Though this seems an extremity of social action or perhaps better, a moment of social inaction or even non-action, it is nevertheless not an extramundane experience in any sense. Its very lack sabotages any sense that it could become ‘something’ more than a distant desire, or at best, the ‘one that got away’. What Weber refers to as a ‘binding normative force’ in this instance and like others acts to prevent action, places a limit upon our desires – they must be shared and specifically must be shared by the object in question – and brings into play a quasi-discursive challenge to the day to day sociality of human relations. This challenge is issued from ethics.

            The more amorphous the object – the divine, the natural, the cosmic, the aesthetic – the easier it is to overlook the ethical angle. Less vague are the dead. They were persons as we now are and yet are, but they are now not subject to personal desires. We might yet imagine they can respond to us through their works, of course. We are not, after all, impinging upon another person who is currently like ourselves or ever will be so again in the future. If we do so impinge upon him, he is more than likely long dead, far beyond our desire in any manner that would suggest an unethical stance. We might even ‘speak ill’ of him, in his unresponsive ‘state’ of being, and still do him no harm at all. This is one reason why a motion toward the transcendent is characterized by non-rational inclinations. In our impersonal ardor, we are ourselves removed from any responsibility towards a known ‘other’ who also lives and thus has her own life to live.

            Calling upon the non-human, the past, nature, deity or cosmos as itself a bastion of Being which is non-being, remits any obligation on our parts to take care of the other, to be concerned for her status or her being in the world-as-it-is. This apparently non-ethical distanciation is convenient for anyone who seeks to convince living others that his intentions are pure, noble, and untainted by personal or even personalist agenda. ‘God is on our side’ feels inclusive and even oddly warm. It is non-threatening, at least at first, because someone has issued forth a demand that entails both myself and a transcendental being, of whom I know next to nothing, and can know at best that its non-human character is also not subject to human desires. This too is reassuring, for then I might well imagine that judgment could only emanate from a human or at worst, an historical source. ‘Religion is society worshipping itself’, yes, I may quote to myself, but what of belief? What of spirit? What of that ‘two-souled colour’ that has been the case prior to the novel call for an unheard of union of souls?

            What the call to Being limits is our concernfulness for the living other. In its halcyon heraldry, transcendentally oriented orison cleaves the existential fabric that weaves beings together, in favor of contriving an ontological uplink that connects Being and beings in a manner that does vital disservice to both. Yet even in a ‘secularistic’ age, we have need of Being, and not only on our own terms. Being yet has a service to perform, and one about which there are several aspects; 1. It provides the model for rationality bereft of history; it is the ideal type upon which historical types are in counterpoint. 2. It is also a ‘role model’ for persons who are beings but who also occupy social roles which often conflict or are at best regularly strained in the face of one another; Being is unburdened of all roles and yet appears to possess a singular role, it is a form of imagination that owns its vocation rather than being owned by its labour. 3. It is a goal to which beings strive forward; it represents thus an ‘absolute value’ towards which rational action may be generally directed, and 4. Being retains its value as a manner in which to access, cross-culturally and across time, all of the human works, the works of beings, which have attempted to emulate it.

            So far we have enumerated the facets of the ultimate object of human desire and also have seen how this ‘customary’ dynamic informs both a commonplace call to another to perform a function for us as well as the uncommon calling to the Other. This one has found herself distant and distanciated not merely from myself but from the world and thus must be called to return. She returns though in altered form and one in which is likened to a selfsame other who in turn cannot exist without my presence; ‘yet I love thee as the one who strains for me alone’. The much vaunted ‘death of God’ as a mere prelude as well as a foreshadowing of the end of mankind is a rootsy manner of expressing the problem of the loss of Being in beings-as-they-are. For a phenomenology, this existentiality insists upon only existing and not therefore being at all. Not that our historical beings must instead possess a profound essentiality about them, as if only those of our own kind and time have realized their spiritual potential, their ethical apogee, or their aesthetic will. It is neither a question of placing existence ‘before’ essence as if the Cartesian ghost in the Mandevillian machine had been awakened by the gnawing patter of the mechanisms at hand. For historical beings, existence is in fact our essential state. Dasein only ‘completes itself’ in its ownmost death.

            I would thus suggest that any call to consciousness as either the modern gloss of deity or the post-modern guise of nature is premature. It not only presumes that what we know or what we can know of our own history is complete enough to have a stable and stamina-laden understanding of said consciousness, it also assumes that whatever is left over that we do not know or have yet to fully understand, including that of the collected works of many of our own recent thinkers, is all that is left to consciousness and therefore we have at least sketched its limits. I think we are mistaken on both points. Being as constructed from the history of consciousness alone forsakes the daily desires of myself and others which are never uplifted into either rational discourse or the ‘arational’ archive of human achievement. For we are mostly and daily kindred with the unknown soldiers of histories unwritten. We are beings without Being and yet we must be counted, and counted upon, in order for a history of consciousness to have taken shape and thence continually to redefine itself.

            Therefore within this limited context wholly rational action too is not only implausible, it may well be impossible. One, if Being has represented to itself an ideal rationality, then history has seen all such transient representation come and go. Belief in the abstract is not enough for a deity to exist upon. Two, Divinity is itself, as a characteristic of transcendental Being, a Parousia of Being-not, for it cannot claim to be the ideal if it itself sets upon any singular circumstance that history affords it, from the human perspective. Only its radical alien quality may make such a claim; one without history and without a history. And how much value could such a Being have? Similarly, and three, we as beings cannot be beholden to the singular, either in our transient selfhood to which accrues not only differing social roles but also serial and ongoing phases of life which too are quite different from one another. In this sense, Being is but the idealization of a human life once lived and, in the completion of Dasein’s existence alongside that life, an idealized hindsight that connects us once again with the ‘sidereal circle in which the gathering of souls commences’.

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

Very Late Capitalism?

Very Late Capitalism?

            Late capitalism is the epoch in history of the development of the capitalist mode of production in which the contradiction between the growth of forces of production and the survival of the capitalist relations of production assumes an explosive form. This contradiction leads to a spreading crisis of these relations of production. (Ernst Mandel, 1972:500).

                It is a delicate operation to discern what, within any social critique, is itself ideology, is itself millennialism, is itself despair, is itself anxiety. Greta Thunberg’s first book calls for a sea-change in world systems, but specifically in that economic. And while it is certainly the case that humanitarian crises as well as those environmental have been exacerbated by a cut-throat dog-eat-dog system of exchanges and values, it is also equally the case that, as Marx himself suggested much closer to its advent, Bourgeois capitalism has been ‘the best system yet invented’. It has created unprecedented levels of wealth and spread that wealth far wider than any other economic dynamic in human history. It has levelled both systems of caste and class. It has elevated the Bourgeois class to political power. It has made the genders far more equal. It has invented technologies that can aid a radical democracy of the kind Thunberg envisages, and most importantly, in its dogged doggerel of individuated ideology, it has exhibited no respect for either gods or kings alike.

            And all of this Marx realized in his own day. For he and Engels, communism would surpass its predecessor in both its humanity and its equalizing force. Thunberg’s too easy dismissal of such an idea that has never been tested at a national level contradicts the entire heritage of her own critique. With some minor local exceptions, the communism authentic to Marx and Engels is as yet an untried device. Given the remainder of her basic suggestions for change, her own view is essentially the same as was theirs.

            Now this is not necessarily a terrible thing. ‘Communism’ is, at least in theory, simply a more equitable and humane version of capitalism, for in the transition from one mode of production to the next, in this case, the means of production remain unchanged. Indeed, Marx had himself to understate this issue within his own dialectical modeling due to two problems: One, purely theoretical, which had Engels’ historical evolutionary scale-level model cohere on the basis of a double change; both means and relations of production were altered in each of the world-shifting limens that had preceded the proposed, and still hypothetical, ‘communist revolution’. And two, purely political; Marx and Engels could not afford to extoll overmuch the system they desired to overthrow.

            And thus neither can Thunberg. Overcoming capitalism is made possible only by the presence of the dynamic forces within capitalism itself, just as Marx understood the case to be for the potential communist outlook. For him, the nation in which he was eventually exiled was in fact the ‘closest to communism’, that of Victorian England, replete with its world-wide colonial empire so derided by Thunberg. That pseudo-communist revolutions occurred in backward, non-capitalistic nations such as Russia and China were world-historical events, to be sure, but ones doomed to failure on Marx’s rubric alone. The ‘small is beautiful Star Trek technocratic humanism’ which settles down like a light drizzle upon the umbrella of future visions of a better world could only be had with the high technologies that capitalism invented. This is not capital ‘selling the communist the rope’ by which the latter will hang the former, but rather presents a series of opportunities for the more ethical use and deployment of resources unimaginable in any other economic system, in any other mode of production.

            And it is not a case of mere technology. The greatest triumph of capital rests not in its products nor its wealth, but in its human liberation, the very human freedom Thunberg so casually denigrates as being delusional within capital. Not quite so. Freedom is a modern construct that is ‘value neutral’, in that it can be manipulated as a sacred ideological cow – and all political parties in the Bourgeois state do this – or it can be realized by the individual in his or her own existential journey, and indeed, only there. The ‘pathless land’ of Krishnamurti is our unwitting and perhaps ironic guide to this kind of authenticity, and the very idea that a human being, fragile, mortal, subject to both ‘the insolence of officials’ and ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ alike, should even be able to dream of such an existential business is nothing if not astonishing. And this dream, realized in a yet few persons but available in theory to all humanity, is the central dream not of communism, but of capitalism.

            Why so? Because along with the idea of freedom comes the conception of the individual. Though its Enlightenment sovereignty and holism is long gone, even in its fragmented and fractured ‘postmodern’ form it is yet more free. Gone are its loyalties to family, to credo, to crowd, even to vocation. The modern self replaces only itself with a further, hopefully wiser, guise of itself. We do ‘die many times to become immortal’, as Nietzsche intoned. That capital places the privileged in a position where they may exercise this basic human freedom on the backs of others makes most attempts at such unfree. Hence the alienation that Marx stated was a hallmark of Bourgeois relations of production. Even in our radical freedom, we are divorced from our shared birthright, our common humanity. So much so, that we do not tend to think of the distant others who are yet enslaved by our very attempts to end the slavery of the modern self.

            This much is true of capital. Even so, the idea that it must be overthrown as its own dialectical force is likely overblown and premature. For within it lie the keys to its own evolution, not revolution. An equitable taxation policy, a surcharge on stock trades of the Tobin variety, an emphasis on sharing innovations, especially in the climate and medical fields, an awareness that we are one species and one world, an adherence to Ricoeur’s dictum that ‘the love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world’, none of these need be sought in a system other than the one we have today. In his day, Marx was understandably coy about his discovery that the essential characteristic of communism were already present in capitalism, but we today have no need to be so. For Thunberg and others to be ignoring this historical insight makes it much less likely that their vision of the future will indeed occur at all.

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

The Return of the Martyr

 The Return of the Martyr

            Though it is not directly a part of my job as a critical philosopher, offending as many people as possible and as succinctly as possible is a commonplace effect of my work. And this editorial is certainly no different. Gender is a performance that easily lends itself to mere affectation. The panglossia of genders being trumpeted today suggest that genderedness itself as an important social construct hooked into specific social and institutional roles is dead and good riddance. May we say the same for its attachment to persons! But there is a non-gendered persona which has made a rather startling return: the antique martyr has been resurrected in our modern age precisely due to theocracy no longer being the myth of the state. Lowith (1939:386) reminds us that in the first half of the fourth century A.D., Christianity was no longer seen as an enemy of the empire and indeed, would soon become its official religion, and then later on, its sole legal religion. Through this process, Christianity lost its chief ethical figure, the martyr. With neither official institutional nor legal sanction, the religious enthusiast was moved from the arena into the monastery. The mimesis of martyrdom was maintained in these marginalia for 14 centuries or so, but the radicality of the originally irruptive anti-role vanished.

            But the undead God moves in mysterious ways, all the more so given He(?) no longer has a set agenda. Lurching uneasily within the zombified corpus of the wholly spirit whose only desire is to escape the resentment-sourced penance we humans have inflicted upon Her(?), His(?) enchantedness turned to sorcery has conjured up the mocking martyr once again. (Not to blame God for this, of course, only ourselves). These latter day martyrs identify causes as irrelevant as did their more authentic forebears, making translation easy enough: ‘I’m a Christian so I won’t oblate to Jupiter and you can’t make me!’ to ‘I’m a Man and if you have a penis then you are too and I’m going to make you!’. In a word, who cares? The fact that major financial institutions, those hotbeds of political radicalism, have accepted a multiplicity of genders in their client identification rubrics should tell us that gender is itself irrelevant, a shallow affectation, a casual label. As if the Christian is authenticated by his politics, as if the male or female is arrived at by denying that any other expressions of gender exist. But all of this backdrop is itself limiting. The more pressing question might be framed rather like this: ‘What is the compulsion for grandstanding about gender etc.?’, and this no matter what politics one might take up.

            We are told that there are six common biological sexes, which are either surgically altered at birth to appear more closely aligned with the dominant genders of man and woman, or do not phenotypically impinge upon such social constructions. [cf. The 6 Most Common Biological Sexes in Humans (] Six sexes seem confusing, but nonetheless, it has an easy alliteration to it. Sometimes parents decide to let the true hermaphrodite decide for ‘itself’, excuse me, what ‘it’ shall be or become. Evangelists might see every c. 5000th live birth as the work of the devil, but if so, the devil confirms his(?) allegiance to straight sex after all, and perhaps she(?) is even a homophobe, since we have present both female and male equipage. Next time someone tells me to ‘go f*** yourself’ – this does occur to the philosopher from time to time – I will despair of ever being able to do so. Some people have all the luck.

            But six official medical sexes aside, and even if ‘transphobic’ martyrs seem to unerringly err in suggesting that there are only two, it is rather gender that is more truly up for grabs and not sex. Well, if there are six sexes, then how many genders are there? It is just at this point that a precise response is no longer possible. Why am I not bothered by this? Why are so many others bothered by it? Speaking personally for a moment, at my age, neither sex nor gender is all that important. Indeed, most days I see myself as asexual, neither man nor woman nor anything else that may be currently available or fashionably dictated. Just as actual sex, amour propre, as the perennially sexy French have it, is chiefly the concern of the young – this is likely why we older folks oft get ornery about such topics and seek to limit young people’s sexuality, including the emerging public diversity of gender identities – so hanging one’s hat etc. up on a gendered peg is very much under the radar. And so it should be for any mature person, both in years and wisdom. ‘No sex, no gender’, should be the rallying cry from an aesthetically inclined and sensually satisfied Sophia. Now this is not a plea for abstinence in any literal sense, just in case any so-called ‘literalists’ are reading this, but rather a sensible response to the irrational furor and moral panic swirling through various media and levels of political office across North America.

            What the latter-day martyrs don’t realize is that their cause is, as always, purely sprung from their own minds. One of the most fruitful concepts in the history of the social sciences is ‘the looking glass self’ of Cooley (1902). It’s not how I see myself nor how others actually see me, but rather how I think others see me which demarcates our selfhood. Seems simple enough; I can’t get into someone else’s head and even if they directly tell me what they think of me I am not sure if this is the entire truth of things. Couple this, if you will, with the fact that how I see myself may not come across to others at all, and this suggests that Cooley’s idea is what drives the dynamic of modern personhood. And the persona the martyr holds out to others is that he is a willing moron.

            And in the literal sense, mind you. For the Greeks, the ‘moron’ was the one who transgressed social norms and customs. Certainly, one could be skeptical or even suspicious of such norms while more or less abiding by them. I hold myself as a reasonable example of a citizen who is consistently critical but publicly loyal to ‘getting along with the others’, since this is the only landscape in which authentic and critical dialogue can occur. Whomsoever decides that martyrdom is more effective than dialogue has betrayed both the commonweal and her own good sense to boot. And yet you see them everywhere, Pimpernel! Across the self-styled digital media and basking in the glory that corporate and state media have noticed them, sitting pompously on school boards, chambers of commerce, in legislatures, behind benches both legal and athletic, shouting from the rooftops and swinging on the bell ropes and ‘manning’ the barricades. You see them standing smugly behind their election signs on grassy verges and spouting sporadically off on podcasts and spinning spontaneously abaft of podiums. Where are the lions, I ask you, where are the lions?

            Given my own surname, I guess that’s my job. I’ve taken my antacid and so now I must, with much reluctance, devour these manacled martyrs before they destroy my preciously fragile infant democracy. If only they had an intelligent reason for their so-heroic self-sacrifice! Where are the martyrs against poverty, for affordable housing, against child abuse, for a safe, safely equipped and secure military, for proportional representation, for lowering the voting age, for literacy in all things, against demagogy in all places, for gentleness not to mention gentility, for tolerance, for compassion? Instead, we have bigoted book banners, harrowing heterosexualists, abusive anti-abortionists and abortionists alike, fatal Feminazis and credulous ‘Christians’ and grim grammarians all. Before you are tempted to attend any of their renovated arenas, please think again about the ideas and institutions that actually found our eccentric and yet oddly shared society, and do so before its very eccentricity descends into a patent madness.

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

Addiction as Rule-Following

Addiction as Rule-Following

            Max Weber’s 1907 paper ‘The Concept of ‘Following a Rule’’ outlines a number of definitions regarding what a rule actually is, or is supposed to be. First, there are those which assert ‘causal connections’, some of which at present have known exceptions and some of which do not. Generally, it is these second kind of ‘causalities’ which are less well understood, for as the cliché runs, an exception serves to ‘prove’ the rule. Next there are norms, which provide the content for validity statements. Most of these incur a ‘face’ validity simply because we can presume upon them to hold in like circumstances of human intersubjectivity. My reaction to this or that encounter will be held within a certain narrow spectrum, and so I can presume upon the other to hold to a very similar spectrum of how one ‘should’ act or not act given such circumstance. Norms are the ‘contents of imperatives’, suggests Weber, and if we pause to consider the force of a social norm we realize that its cleaving to our commonplace apprehension of what constitutes ‘normal’ social relations requires validities that backdrop that of ‘face’, including that both ‘content’ and ‘predictive’. That norms and causal principles are likened to one another is one part human egotism and another plain analogy.

            Beyond the sense that things ‘happen’ for a reason and that such an interface is rule-governed, there are, Weber continues, certain ‘maxims of action’ that inform our social beings. No matter their content, they always include the exhortation ‘go and do likewise’. We are, in a word, supposed to not merely nod our heads to the idea of the maxim but to act upon it in the real world and continue to do so consistently given the viscous variety of social encounters. These maxims are thus more conscious than mere mores. They can range from the gravitas-laden ‘call to conscience’ of which Heidegger makes much mileage without ever truly specifying either what is calling or what is being called – the question of origins at both ends, as it were, of such a dynamic is an ongoing phenomenological puzzle, for instance, at least for me – to the much less weighty proposal that I simply ‘get along’ with the others when in Rome. That such maxims directing us to action can conflict should be no surprise, for day to day relations require of us little enough ‘conscience’ at all let alone a Wagnerian countenance or yet more self-conscious, one Pauline.

            But Weber is quick to remind us that however ‘conscious’ our approximation of acting to a rule, ‘following’ it, as one commonly says, or distanced from being called to mind or to conscience, it makes no logical difference in the standards and outcomes of any social relation. Because human interaction is generally more complicated than are natural relationships – nature has no need of ‘lying’, for example, though our own rules regarding dishonesty have increasingly presumed empirical sensibilities to be the only exacting standard by which to judge truths and in this certain uniquely modern implications thence arise – even so, judged broadly enough and observed over the longer term, human interactions too begin to exhibit a precision at which the free-minded individual would, in her own singular acts of will, be nothing other than appalled. In a word, human beings are, en masse, almost as predictable as nature has itself become known to be.

            There is a certain inexorable logic to all of this: I find myself on the outs with another. If I wish to regain her trust or yet her love, I must follow, quite precisely and consciously, a number of rules that our culture has designed and ‘maxim-ized’, as it were. If in doing so, she still shuns me, then I can generally take this as something quite personal. It is not the action that is derided, in other words, but rather I myself. The pariah figure differs from the hermit in precisely this important regard. The latter is viewed as eccentric, but the former is an outright villain. And the usual rubric of unknowing might as well apply. Most of us have no idea how commonplace technologies actually function, for example, and thus we interact with them on a need to know basis alone. Just so, we are not specialists because there are others who do have such intricate technical know-how who exist and who we can thus consult. The more so, there are also other kinds of ‘experts’, the psychologist, for example, who is presumed to know how the human mind ‘works’, at least in some basic sense.

            But just there the analogy drops off. Weber makes much of the distinction between how the maxim interfaces with one, the empirical ‘law’, on the one hand, and two, the norm, on the other. We can observe what is ‘in’ nature and we can act ‘within’ it either for or against. In this, our human actions in the world cleave more closely to the ‘cause and effect’ sensibility we have of how nature works unmolested. Oddly, this could be seen as making us less human, as we have taken on what we understand to be the character of natural relations in order to influence, for better or worse, the ‘course of nature’. Certainly, our judgment about the ‘good or bad’ in our own acts remains squarely within the human orientation. Nature carries on no matter what we do, though it may take a different course and one that is not salutary for our continued existence within its heretofore forgiving envelope. I would add that in addition to Weber’s famous distinction between ideal types (closely related to ‘models of’ in Schutz) and historical types (‘models for’), that any human maxim which is hortatory can only be analogous to an anthropomorphized nature – it has no direct bearing either upon it nor does it emanate therefrom. We thus, as Weber states, perform it within the mindset of a ‘teleology’; that is, we believe that the action takes us forward to a clearly defined end goal, which is how he ties in his further conceptual distinction of ‘absolute value’ versus finite goal. And yet they are intimately related in our action ‘within’ or toward nature –  no matter what hyperbolized wisdom is at hand, telling us that ‘this is what nature wants of us, or requires of us’. Surely this is but a rationalization. And in this, it differs markedly from the kind of sensibility Weber says we bring to finite goal oriented activities.

            While it has been oft stated that Weber’s presumption of the basic rationality of human action in the world is perhaps an overstatement of real affairs, if we take his model of finite goal orientation to itself be an ideal type, the problem dissipates, though we are, admittedly, placed at an uncertain distance from how persons actually act, with a corresponding loss of predictive validity accruing to anything we might further say of such acts. Even so, the projection of social norms into a wider nature is not without its own equally social function. On the darker side, perhaps we can point to the socialization-oriented imperatives that children must somehow be brought into the normative fold of ongoing social relations as they have been previously experienced. The challenge for each generation to do just this is not only perennial, but well known; so much so, that the wildest concatenations of both ‘experts’ and self-styled wiseacres have been brought to bear upon it. One trip to any thrift store will evidence this, as there is always present an entire section of books etc. devoted to ‘family’ or ‘child-raising’ or ‘education’. And yet this is hardly the end of the human process, most glaringly, due to their being nothing in any experience of acculturation that can truly prepare me for mine ownmost death.

            Hence the ideality of the finite. Human goals, in order to accede more closely to those we imagine nature to have evolutionarily mastered, must become generational in their development and not merely their reproduction. And in this we are brought face to face with the problem of addiction. Seen in its widest sense, addiction is the result of a too-focused orientation of one’s acts toward neither a finite goal – such a goal is, almost by definition, recognizable as not being present prior to one’s acts ‘toward’ it, for instance – nor an absolute value; this latter is seen to be transcendent of our individual acts and in this one can only provide a pale mimicry thereof, much like the sensibility we bring to the idea of an alien nature. Instead, addiction desires reproduction alone. In this, it is itself an imitation of mechanical solidarity within social contract societies. Though human beings are notably adept at adapting to changing circumstances, the shift in finite goal orientation, whether enacted rationally or no, is yet directed toward the absolute value of preserving what has already been in existence, whether this be a whole species, an entire culture, a set of norms, or an individual person. In short, what adaptation has generally meant for human consciousness is designing a new set of rational actions directed toward finite goals – Zweckrationales Handelnwithout altering the ultimate teleological relationship with not only the maxim-generating content of this or that absolute value oriented action – Wertrationales Handeln –  but the idea of a value which is itself absolute, that is, must be followed no matter changing circumstance.

            The origin of all specific addictions thus must be seen as a mimesis of the basic need for social reproduction. In this, it has the face validity of a will to life. Each of us might ask, ‘well, how else are we to survive and carry on as a species?’, or even more commonly and arguably more honestly stated as,  ‘I know what I like and I like what I know’. This deeper imperative is no mere convention, in that nowhere do we either find it being ‘convened’ as if one had to come to a collective decision about its value or its validity, or do we see it as ‘conventional’ in any other sense than that of what is unthought and therefore never brought to conscious life at all. It is a perhaps ironic characteristic of the will to life that it itself is rarely lived as a knowable and palpable experience. Weber’s discussion of the meaningfulness of norms being their suasive property is in principle correct; I have to understand that my action has both a purpose and a sense in order to carry it out. The former directs me to a goal, the latter frames what I actually do in attempting to attain it. Between purpose and sense, meaning is eventually granted. That such meanings will change over the life course is testament not to reproduction let alone addiction, but to the authenticity of Dasein’s ongoingness. Indeed, twenty years after Weber’s essay, Heidegger’s masterwork notes that addiction completely translates all of Dasein’s action into the most narrow focus imaginable: that of reproducing a state which is counter to all known human process as well as effacing human history. Beyond this, there is an intimation that, through ‘tarrying’ and even curiosity, human beings as Dasein run the constant risk of becoming addicted to themselves.

            And just as Weber reminds us that ‘an event becomes part of nature only if we do not ask after its meaning’ – it is a different question if such meanings remain within the purely human ambit; within it, there may be all kinds of disputes regarding meaningfulness even if we in fact agree that such and such an event took place – addiction possesses this additional force; it approaches us with the radical subito of a compulsion precisely because we have assigned to it no meaning related to our own phenomenological ongoingness, even in the day to day. Addiction is thus the paragon of rule-following. Empirically, this is seen in the effort, especially by youth, to exert some personal control over their existence. Young women suffer from eating disorders while young men are transfixed by gambling, and indeed these are the topmost versions of addiction that are generally found in these demographics. It may be that alternate gender identification tactics take on the compulsive character of addictions because they are, by definition, attempts to place under personal control the forces of self-definition, at once so intimate and alien to each of us, but especially to youth.

            Addicted persons regularly state that their motives for engaging in reproductive action center around their ability to ‘take control’ of their lives as against an omnipresent external control, often family or the combination of various social institutions ranged against youthful experimentation in all things. Eating disorders are now understood to be sourced, at least individually, in such oppressive and overtly controlling circumstances. Gambling, especially that digital and oriented towards sports betting, is advertised as if one can actually control the outcomes of the events gambled upon. The panoply of ways and means of placing bets gives the illusion that one will inevitably win at least some of the time. Just as we frown upon the controlling parent, we should do more to sanction against the manipulative marketing of ‘gaming’. The further effect of addiction is to make such ways and means unconscious, in the sense that they may not be called to mind at all and simply acted upon as part of the general compulsion of addictive behaviors. As Heidegger stated, all action drains off into the compulsion; ‘anything for a fix’, in casual terms. Thus as well, all meaningfulness of such action vanishes, and the stenochoric character of the original human self-understanding is both mimicked and mocked; one, because any action bereft of both meaning and reflection becomes mechanical, and the other because in addiction, we have only the shadow of the social contract in that it is neither authenticating to a tradition nor is it capable of generating new ideas.

            In sum, neither the ‘agents themselves’, the addicts, nor those who profit by them, escape this narrowed horizon that shuns the basic ongoingness of existence. But it is hardly enough to designate only the most obvious examples of a stunted will to life which itself eschews both will and life as a human being must live it. Any activity that we are compelled to repeat overmuch, that which retreats from our conscious reflection as well as avoiding any call to conscience which might exist for us, must be subjected to unwavering critique. Production and consumption, patriotism, in-group or familial loyalty, schooling, the ‘absoluteness’ of values, even the ‘finiteness’ of goals, are often addicts which affect far more persons than does any drug. And if religion is no more the ‘opiate of the masses’ – surely it has long been replaced by media in general – it remains the case that our notion of reproduction and the absolute frame our narrow self-interests. In one sense, this was historically inevitable if we fashion ourselves as God’s replacements. Both creation and destruction come fully into our purview, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

            But self-creation and self-destruction cannot simultaneously exist for a finite being whose very essence is existential and whose very meaning is historical. And so it is a case of a misplaced ‘ought’ that now in turn misdirects us to assiduously, even slavishly, follow rules which are oriented to reproduction in lieu of those more open-ended maxims that exhort creation. On the one hand, the meanings of these latter rules are to be contested, and the turning away from such human conflict is, though understandable, a denial of the basic ethical precept that humanity is one thing in its very diversity and that we thus have a duty to the other to undertake an understanding of her without the addictive compulsion of forcing her to be ‘like’ we already imagine ourselves to be. And on the other hand, it is an escape from the problematic test of being compelled to follow normative rules, let alone those cosmic, which is particularly acute for youth but which follows each of us until our individual deaths. The chief difference empirically between an adult and a child is that the former generally follows the rules at hand. The key distinction ethically is that the adult knows what the rules are and how to follow them, whether he does so or not, and beyond this, must generally accept personal responsibility for outcomes of actions even if something or other is not one’s ‘fault’. In addiction, I can avoid both of these conjoined responsibilities, and this is an addiction’s charm at the level of the individual. But seen only existentially and historically can we truly understand addiction as a fraudulent manner of reproducing an inexistence yet charged with the will to life at all costs. In this it is the obverse but not at all the opposite of the ‘evil of evil’, Ricoeur’s ‘fraudulence in the work of totalization’. It is only by way of our incorrect estimations that meaning only holds within the absolute value, that life can only endure by eschewing living, that the act can take the place of action, and that the world is ‘by nature’ a study in conflict and nothing besides, do we thence fall under the spurious spell of addiction in its most essential sense.

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

An Imperfect Storm

An Imperfect Storm

            Hegel’s understanding of authentic education involves us placing ourselves at a distance from what is familiar. We return to ourselves only through the transformation which the encounter with the alien brings forth. This movement is the result of our existential thrownness. Not only to we take up a project, we are ourselves projected into the world, while ideally avoiding the problem of ‘projection’, of such interest to both psychopathology and more generally, to ethics. At once we also commit ourselves to ‘die many times’, however immortal we may or may not become over the life course. It is this radically other presence, now in front of us, to which we have been drawn in spite of ourselves, that will perform its duty, both solemn and ebullient. Our self-sacrifice is just that, an immolation of what has been known as the self, the very person with which I may be too much in love and at the very least, too familiar with. For Hegel and Nietzsche after him, education was about forsaking the known for the heretofore unknown. Both as well recommended an humanistic study of only the classical canon of Greece and Rome. Hegel, as a Christian thinker, sought these sources not only as the roots of his religion and what he felt was the ultimate expression and collation of these roots in a universalizing ethics. Nietzsche, as an anti-Christian thinker, sought these same sources in order to go back behind a simplifying and ‘enslaved’ perversion of a more noble ethics. But either way, the classical period of antiquity made for an appropriate estrangement from the modern self, and this was its key feature for both writers.

            Our situation has in principle little changed today, though its reality is subject to some torrid irony. On the one hand, we have what on the surface is the noble pursuit of humanistic sources by Christian educators, though they sully their authentic discipline with that of barbarism, and on the other, post-Christian secular institutions – almost all of the universities, for instance – have bodily turned away from the very humanism which set them free from parochial provincialism. Yet the principle of distanciation, and the more so, self-distanciation, faintly reverberates. The neo-Christians, in their ardor to turn back the clock on a secularizing world, venerate humanistic sources without coming to radically dislodge their theocratic preconception of relevant histories and indeed, those deemed to be ‘irrelevant’ – paleontology is the most obvious example here – are somehow placed wholly outside the frame of Christian consciousness. For these conservative educators, distanciation is a description of the world over against that of themselves. For the liberal educators that dominate the universities, to gain the necessary Hegelian distance means rather to forsake the humanism that originally drove the ideals of ‘higher’ education in favor of technique, something that both Hegel and Nietzsche, and everyone in between them during the self-educating nineteenth century, abhorred. So while the conservatives use humanism as a guise to bolster a waning neo-Christian worldview, the liberals use technique to prove to themselves that a mere religious education was a dead end.

            In both, we see a fraudulent mimicry of Hegel’s diagnostic. In neither is there the truly radical distanciation that alters one’s self-conception. One is either a child of god or one is a thinking machine. As a social being, one is either a resident of Utopia or of Penguin Island. The conservative educator masks his ‘return to oneself after being other’ underneath a lineage of thought which inevitably draws itself forward into the advent of the Gospels. Given that Hegel sought Christianity as a culmination of historical forces and an expression of an absolute ‘spirit’ to which all could cleave their individual souls, this process has a face validity that liberal education lacks. But it is a surface feature alone, for the immolation of the self upon the alien shores of Rhodes has not occurred, cannot occur. Even so, the liberals, who have a content validity to put up against their rival’s ‘face’ – the action of science crosses cultures in its discursive galleries without as much ‘syncretism’, which the missionaries of yesterday always themselves faced – are forced to jettison anything which provides an holistic understanding of humanity. Truly ‘specialists without spirit’ are they.

            At the very eye of this pedagogic storm, its rivalry intensifying before our very eyes, there is a third force at large, aloof to both humanity as an evolutionary Gestalt and to the technology and techniques created by we earthly gods. This third force is nature ‘itself’. The Christian indictment to become ‘stewards of the earth’ is well-taken in these ‘last evil days’ of secular history. Yes, but the apocalyptarians, our most dangerous version of the venerable mystagogue, remind us that we have left things too late. That there is resentment against the shrill aspects of the environmental movement is understandable along these lines. Why tell us how evil we have been if at the same time the result of such evil is nothing less than the old world judgment of the new world deity? What is to be gained by sacrificing ourselves before the final oblation is to be rendered? Within this same movement, there is another voice that accepts the chiding but then states that we can yet prove ourselves worthy of the newly divine nature, saving ‘it’ and thereby ourselves as well. Hence Heidegger was premature, suggesting penultimately that ‘only a God can save us’, which ominously reminded one of how the Germans were thinking in 1930, the same year as Freud’s ‘Civilization and it Discontents’ appeared in print. Just so.

            Thus the apparently wholly secular and ‘progressive’ movement of nature lovers looks more and more like the wholly religious and regressive motions emanating from the extremities of neoconservative Christianity. The end is nigh, prepare to meet thy god, and such-like. Bumper stickers proclaim it so it must be true. But though Hegel reminds us that none of us today has the gumption to fully desert the familiarity of the known selfhood and thence experience the radical otherness of another world – for him, Greece and Rome, for us perhaps, the presumed coming encounter with at least imagined extraterrestrial cultures – it is Nietzsche who exhorts us to shed our ressentiment in order to take the first steps to another kind of being entirely. If Hegel’s stepwise evolution can be seen as the process of becoming the spiritual result of Nietzsche’s punctuated equilibrium in the Overman, within this tandem lies a fair model of authentic education. What results from self-distanciation is superior for both thinkers. I not only know more, I am more. But neither theology nor technique provides this self-overcoming. They both expressly lack the humanity  – one adores a god, the other a machine – in the first place. What then is to be overcome? For both thinkers, the self cannot be overleapt. It is not a matter of replacing something, but rather developing that which it is in its essence. One actually ‘returns to oneself from being otherwise’, and thus in turn one also ‘dies many times in order to become immortal’.

            And in no way does the belated presence of the third party, enveloping humanity and eschewing divinity at once, alleviate the historical task that both beckons and threatens us at this very hour. Nature, in its stark majesty, carries on outside of the sacred and secular alike. It has neither in its amorphous existence, it is neither in its essential being. Having just lived through my first hurricane, I comprehended that nature was in itself incomprehensible. I could not speak to it, I could not listen to its voice. Nature is too alien for Hegel’s pedagogic dialectic to cleave to, too eternal for Nietzsche’s cyclical existence to return to. For both thinkers, nature was never the goal, either as a metaphor for humanity’s wholly historical being, or as knowledge thereof, the material result of mere technique and its studied applications. Rather it was history in Hegel and culture in Nietzsche that were at stake. The climate mystagogues attempt to turn us away from both, to our collective peril. The evangelists attempt to subvert both in the service of mock sacrifice, speaking the twisted tongues of absent origins and destinations. For the one, nature in crisis originates in human hubris, for the other, that selfsame hubris dooms our species to self-destruction. Either way, the apocalypse is fulfilled. The environmentalist is shown to be merely the secular version of the evangelist.

            Hegel and Nietzsche would reject both out of hand. I fully agree. Our historical present is not primarily a conflict between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’. Indeed, the latter provides the necessary backdrop for the former’s sudden and radical appearance, the landscape upon which it irrupts as an uncanny force, not of suasion let alone soteriology, but rather of authenticity. The sacred is, and always has been, beholden only to our self-distanciation, radically called to conscience in a most phenomenological fashion. And though our experience within its rare and extramundane presence might tempt us to deride the otiose as somehow lesser and inauthentic, we must rather accept that the day to day is a prerequisite for the visionary. Perhaps its entire function is to provide the necessary perspective that a wholly sacred life would entirely lack. Such a life would be, in a word, inhuman, absenting itself from the very history which allows us to know ourselves. The sacred alone is kindred with nature’s ongoingness, somnolent or seething as the case may be. Instead, our life in the world of today is a test, sometimes of epic proportions, of our resolve to not run away from our own collective history and thence to not turn away from our shared and ownmost future.

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

The Customer is Always Wrong

The Customer is Always Wrong

            Ever since the turn of the century it has been the basic weakness of bourgeois education that it has been the education of the educated class, building a wall of separation against the working class and losing the spiritual horizon for the universal problem of work. (Lowith, 1991:282 [1939]).

                The distrust of expertise is built into the psyche of Protestant consciousness, and from the very beginning of the Reformation. Ritualism, the purview of the Catholic Church, was mistrusted as a manner of manipulation. Holding services in the vernacular was an attempt by the sectarians to reach out to the uneducated ‘classes’ – back then, almost everyone – and thereby return them to both the community of light and wisdom but also to exercise the suasion of soteriological doctrine much more directly. It was, perhaps ironically, the act of the expert to communicate his expertise to the layperson so that the latter could once again begin to trust the former’s authority. From the church to the school, by the first third of the nineteenth century, we see a similar attempt at communication. Before the advent of the child-saving movement – the first in a lengthy and still active lineage of ‘bored housewives’ benevolent associations; a contemporary irony is that the latter day inventions of this lineage are out to ban books and preserve physical punishment of children, both odd ways of ‘saving’ them – there was no conflict between education for different classes. The children of the working class were simply not to be educated at all. That this was altered by mid-century should not necessarily tell us that the history of our universal school system, given birth c.1850 and carrying on today mostly by its own inertia, is or was ever fully democratic in its ideals, let alone its practices.

            The introduction of the illiterate classes into the classroom had the general effect of dumbing down the curricula, making them more accessible or even worldly. A similar though more minor seismic tremor was felt when cognitively challenged children were added to the already heady mix perhaps some thirty years ago. The response to this universalizing education was that wealth promptly excerpted its own children from that same system. Seen by the casual viewer as a ‘choice’ which parents ‘ought’ to have, the private school system or versions thereof called ‘charter’ or yet parochial schools is fundamentally anti-democratic and indeed to be so was ever its clearest intent. Wealth does not desire to mix with poverty, either in material or in ‘spirit’. The ‘bourgeois’ education of which Lowith speaks is itself the scion of the new wealth of the post-1789 age, that is, our own. Modernity is rife with the tension between the ideal of equality and the reality of inequality, and this around the globe, within every culture, and often enough even animating the interior of the individual person, who knows not whether to will only himself or to help others gain a semblance of human freedom.

            And though the charter schools are sometimes created and thus delineated by ethnicity or even religion, the vast majority of them place themselves aloof to the public system by virtue of wealth alone. Indeed, in the enclave schools, families which are not as wealthy can count on growing their wealth through participating in the limited marriage pool, which is the chief principle of the private system: keep wealth among the wealthy. And with such wealth comes both power and privilege. The ‘blood’ of the yet aristocratic-aping bourgeois class must remain inviolate. In a symbology of envisioned violence, the ‘educated classes’ wage a chill war against any other who would attempt to gain their inherited privileges let alone their wealth. Governments, which after all are run by the elite classes or are at least told what to do by them, aid and abet the spread of private schools, thereby concentrating wealth and privilege amongst the few. Is it any wonder that the majority of us have a heightened mistrust of expertise of all kinds?

            Those who are being schooled to become the next generation of experts trust the authority of those current without question. Hence the duplicity of the schools in general, wherein ‘questioning things’ is limited to either the technical or the historical; ‘why does gravitational lensing show us exoplanets?’ or ‘why did Spain hire Columbus the very year it expelled the Moors?’ and such-like. These are questions only in the most literal sense, and hardly that literate. In the private schools, there is, ironically, more of the real question, but this is precisely because the ultimate question of addressing the conflict that privilege has created and thence has attained is never broached; ‘why are we in this school and not our ex-friends?’, ‘why is there a private system at all?’, ‘are we really superior beings or is this an affect of social inequality alone?’. These kinds of questions are on the road to the truth of things and cannot remain in the technical realm. They are of course, also historical questions but they do not absent themselves from the present simply because we also need to know the pedigree of such current social formations. Every other apparent ‘conflict’ about educating today is a decoy: critical race theory, ‘wokeness’, subaltern genders, ‘traditional values’, civics, and sundry others. These fraudulent and fashionable contrivances serve only to allay a lingering sense that due to this family’s relative wealth and this other family’s relative poverty that their respective children will have glaringly different life-chances over the life course.

            The final if not fatal irony is that any expert who points this out in a critical manner is himself automatically distrusted. Any pedagogue, any philosopher of education, any sociologist, any ethicist. Surely he too must have been a product of elite education? How could he then be betraying his own kind? It must be a trick. While it is the case that any partial critique that issues band-aid ‘remedies’ is an act of duplicity and betrayal – ‘let’s fund the two systems equally’, ‘let’s reward the best and brightest without regard to class background’, ‘it is a function of democracy to give parents a choice in educating their children’ (a false choice since it is based upon differential access to resources of all kinds) – what these lesser ‘experts’ achieve is but a blanket ban on understanding the key issues that backdrop the problem of knowledge in our contemporary society. To see them for what they are is, regrettably, to also see expertise itself as a mere rationalization for the existing social order.

            This general mistrust of the expert appears in all contexts, petty and profound alike. I first experienced it later in my academic career when young students questioned the relevance of the history of consciousness, cited celebrities instead of thinkers, refused to read assigned texts, referenced popular culture tropes as the meat of critique and displayed a shockingly low level of literacy in all its forms. It was of interest that pending social background, this distrust of authoritative work was either fully present or equally absent. Most germane for our discussion here, was that the few working class students at the universities were keen to accept and learn and those from the bourgeois classes felt no need to learn anything but the technique presented for specific professions. The ‘ethnic’ students were of two minds; those from the sub-continent who were wealthy disdained all authority while those from East Asia genuflected to it in a kind of shallow supplication that made it look like they were the ‘best of students’. In marginal regions young people craved learning and understood their privilege in being able to have that opportunity. In urban and more wealthy areas, the students saw themselves rather as customers, ‘clients’, a sensibility only encouraged by the universities themselves, partly as a way by which to divide faculty from the student body and partly to attract young persons in the first place. This latter ploy played upon the quite righteous sense that an average eighteen-year-old is rather sick of schooling and needs be treated more like an adult. Ethically this is correct, and indeed, such mature and respectful relations should extend well back from the legal age of adulthood, perhaps to age twelve. But such respect must function both ways, as it were. Ultimately, there was no point in someone like myself continuing to be a professor in such classrooms as presented themselves, where students en masse behaved as if they had no interest in being present to learn anything at all.

            But the insular academy is hardly the only place wherein expertise is in principle mistrusted or even denied outright. And the deniers are, to a person, those who hail from the bourgeois classes themselves. It is as if in attaining their own little arena of expertise, they can maintain it only by denying the authority of all others. Know a little know a lot, they must imagine. My wife, who is a veteran and senior advisor in the finance sector, brings weekly accounts of bank customers who tell her to her face that she is incorrect about very technical matters that no layperson would generally have a clue about. Our real estate agent told us of the daily occasions where she was told how to sell houses by buyers. Our brilliant contractor regales us with similar accounts of those who ‘tell him his job’, which is a concise manner of putting the problem. Similarly our wonderful mechanic, with whom I could not live without. In the corporation of which I am the CEO, our in-house cyber-security and marketing expert tells us of regular occurrences where his highly skilled and subtle expertise is denied by clientele, and add to this the perennial issue of parents telling teachers how to teach, patients telling doctors how to diagnose, analysands explaining their own psychopathology to counselors, and parents – once again – screaming at referees from the sidelines, insisting that officials’ calls were biased, and especially those indicting their own children, what do you know?

            Is it odd that I, as an internationally recognized student of ethics, education, and aesthetics and as the author of fifty-three books, should have no issues at all granting others their authority and expertise? Should it not be the case that if ‘know a little know a lot’ is the general foible, that ‘someone like me’ should quite literally think that he knows it all? What my advantage is, is that I have been able to surround myself with those who really are experts in their fields, whether it be contracting, cars, property, finance, or caring for youth amongst others. I can do that because I know what it takes to become an expert, to gain the credentials yes, but the more so, to be able to learn to apply them in the world. At the same time, I flatter myself in knowing the difference between work well done and a sham effort, whether at the level of the individual or the institution. No doubt I cannot always be correct in my estimation of others, even of social structures and their widespread effects. No matter the experience, no matter the level of literacy, there will always be episodes, events and eventualities that defy one’s ‘expertise’. But this reality should not take away from the general sensibility that expertise and authority of the authoritative kind is a pressing necessity in these our shared times and this our shared world. It is almost as if the masses lie in wait for the expert to make his singular mistake, betraying himself as the naked emperor he always must have been. And it is the supposedly ‘educated classes’ who populate this ambuscade.

            Even so, one also does not desire a society full of illiterate and obeisant servants who slavishly follow every ‘expert’ demand without question. Yet it is equally clear that in order to ask a serious question, a certain critical literacy must be attained, and schooling neither public nor private is geared into this goal. Indeed, there is no social institution as such that can afford this too precious level of literacy lest all loyalty to them be immediately absent. ‘Corrupting youth’ yes, to be sure. But it is not youth who primarily need educating to these regards, but rather the smug and self-assured middle class ‘adult’ who thinks he knows, if not everything, then at least what he ‘needs to know’ about all things. ‘Everyone an expert’ must be the battle hymn of this repugnant republic: ‘No one knows myself better than I’, ‘My children, my house, my rules’, ‘don’t tell me how to run my life’, and even ‘live and let live’, are its much chanted refrains. There is a certain anarchistic element to individualism decoyed both by the false choices of consumer media and the false democracy of the separate school systems. This impulse plays upon our general lack of control and authority in society as a whole. In fact, very few of us have the luxury to speak our minds freely and fully, and simply because this act is a function of my profession gives me a sense of authority far beyond the reality that the entire history of philosophy has encountered in its rare disseminations.

            In seemingly an ultimate irony, Max Weber, arguably the greatest expert on society that history presents to us, stated that we must not trust the experts with anything beyond their expertise. Experts are tools alone. They cannot make decisions for us, especially those political, and thus they should be consulted only in times of true crisis, and thence put aside once again. Insofar as this is how a democracy must function in order to attain a reality beyond that in name alone, Weber is correct. The ‘expert’, of whatever ken, is after all only one person, a human like ourselves, fallible and even biased. Further, the expert cannot be an expert in all things, and so she is not merely like us, she is us, in all of our knowledge and ignorance, partial in both senses of the term. But insofar as expertise is sabotaged by ignorance within the selfsame person, we are jarred into a more general suspicion; if he is that stupid about this, then how can I trust him about that? The only working antidote to this gnawing doubt is to interact with others only within the bounds of their official capacities. All human relations are thus to be made contractual alone. Is this not why marriage is such a challenge for most of us? Only here do we confront the whole person and must trust her, eventually implicitly. Yes, there are even ‘marriage experts’, though one would think that the person who had been married and thus divorced the most times would be the greatest of these!

            While Hume stated that ‘all knowledge comes from human experience’, Kant qualified by responding, ‘yes, but what does it take to have an experience?’ and by the twentieth century, other thinkers asked ‘what does it mean to have an experience?’. On the one hand, pending the event, such experience might not even be communicable to others. The vision is notoriously lost in translation, as William James pointed out. On the other, however, most human experience can be at least partially shared. The trick is to understand just how much the other has comprehended of the self, and the more so, vice-versa. We do know something of ourselves, but we also deny and suppress other aspects as important. Even with regard to our own spirits, we are but partial experts. Our shared humanity is unhinged if all imagine that what they know is ‘enough’ to live. True expertise comes in understanding rather the limitations of both selfhood, of discourse, of learning and even of human experience. Not that these limits are perennial, unassailable by a future consciousness or even a more precise science. Even so, our own living Zeitgeist has its inherent limits. Coming to know that when we approach the counter upon which is laid out the pleasures and desires of the spirit of our age that we are always at risk of being wrong about each and every one of them is the beginning of authentic expertise.

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

Writing the Last Novel

Writing the Last Novel

            I have written the last novel. Yes, I have. Benjamin, in his famous analysis ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, tells us that origins and authenticities are mutually imbricating. The very presence of a singular original work is not a necessary variable for, but rather is the essence of, the aesthetic object. He uses the religious term ‘aura’ to describe such a presence, something which any reproduction notoriously lacks. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art is determined by the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.” (1955:220). It is of immense interest that Marx borrows the concept of the ‘fetish’, also from religious discourse, to describe in turn the inauthenticity of the commodity relation. Art is understood as part of the expression of the character of humanity as a whole work in itself, self-created after being put together from and by evolutionary materials. The question of an absent Creator as itself a ‘third party’ need not be broached, for evolution is also merely a process and not its own genius. Other objects within capital are at their highest quality as a product when they attempt to mimic an art work or more widely, an art form. But like charisma, the existence of which in modernity is doubted, religion too, the source of both aura and fetish, can be seen only in a faint echo of its original presence. Just so, the work of art supplants religion in our modern age, but only because art and religion were once one thing.

            And just as all prophets and messiahs have come and gone, the cowardly mimesis of religious innovators that is a symptom of mass politics and hardly of massive belief – indeed, more inspired faith can be found in UFO religions than in those sectarian; a pressing and all consuming desire to believe animates these forward-looking marginal cults, their very ‘being-ahead’ carrying them alongside the original Christian cults of the Eastern Mediterranean – carries on within a closed circle. It is not portable, in the eminent manner that is the aura which emanates from a work of art. The work of religion that was the messianic has fulfilled itself long ago. The work of art that is novelistic has done the same, but much more recently. Now a novel has been written that cannot be a novel. Its function exceeds its form, its expectations herald a new art form. It seeks the new because it in itself has no tradition from which to generate the necessary aura that elevates the work into the work of art. “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.” (ibid:223). What then of the ominous veneration that attaches itself to the new?

            To worship the novel for the sake of its newness is suggestive of youth. The commodity, once again in its turn, plays on this original and essential sense of wonder that a new human being brings into the world, and collapses its aura into a fetish. A novel experience is one that I have not previously had. But ‘having’ an experience is not limited to something I do ‘in’ the world, an action, an adventure, an observation. Beyond this, and yet occurring sometimes prior to, sometimes after, a worldly experience, is the interpretation, the anticipation, the wonder and the bemusement that such an experience will generate on both sides of itself, as it were. And in each of these other experiences I do find myself altered, as if I were my own tradition, ‘alive and changeable’, sometimes indeed to extremes, and this especially so in my youth. The ‘priority’ of the new, its invocation of desire, strikes us as does the premonitory aspect of the work of art. T.S. Eliot once had it that poetry begins to communicate long before it is fully understood, or better, comprehended. This is meant to convey the presence of presence before one is oneself present to it. This is the effect of the aura, and in this, it separates itself quite bodily from the affect of the fetish, which can only begin to alter my sense of reality once the object is itself fully present and I have ‘understood’ it to be present. To tradition, the new is always ominous. Youth venerate such changing presence, while the old in any culture tend to worship the tradition. But tradition was once itself new, and thus also new to me, who thence grows older within it and notes that along the way, ‘the’ tradition was not what it once was, or no longer can be identified with what I originally imagined it to be.

            But since tradition cannot be separated from the work of art while at the same time travelling alongside the commodity, itself bereft of all traditions – which is the chief reason why advertisers attempt to contrive a ‘tradition’ out of a commodity; hence the idea of ‘marque’ or even ‘brand’ and such consumer loyalties that may or may not adhere to it –  the push and pull between tradition and wonder, between the old and the new, between experience and astonishment and so on, suggests to us that whatever the aura which the work of art presents to us as its signature presence, between the aesthetic object and myself there is a splitting of differences. This is not to be taken as glibly as the commonplace phrase implies. At once we must be immersed in the tradition in order to fully appreciate the significance of this or that work of art, while as well we must be able to leap out of said tradition in order to do the same. Art is the only human product in the world wherein ambiguity is the goal. If Eliot is correct, this essential uncanniness, at once familiar and yet strange to me, is an experience that cannot be resolved until much more of my own life has intervened. Akin to returning to a book and reading it once ‘again’ after many years, with the expectation that I will gain a different insight from it, note different themes and moments as being more or less of import, and also, one would hope, noting the same things about myself as a human character in the historical drama, the presence of the work of art cannot be said to be truly ‘present’ in the way all other objects in the world appear to be. In fact, we are led to comprehend the fetish of the commodity along precisely these lines: it cannot exert any suasion over us unless it is there in its wholeness, form and function aligned, the one pleasing to the casual eye, the other vouchsafed in its mechanism, producing our desired outcomes. In no way does art presume to be present in such a cut and dried manner. And just as we do not purchase commodities for their perduring ambiguity, we find ourselves adoring them for their very consistency and ease.

            Art is inconsistent. Art is uneasy. It reminds the modern human being of his own Ungeheuer, my ownmost dis-ease and existential homelessness. At the same time, it brings me back into the essence of what I am as a human being; ambiguous, resolved and completed only in mine ownmost death. “One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.” (ibid:237). In the case of the last novel, this new form is interactive digital media. The seal which binds text to itself has been broken through. The characters who populate a narrative can no longer tell their own story to themselves, by themselves. No, instead, these non-human humans require a player, just as does the painting require a viewer. And what was once the expression of sacred presence in the secular world, its aura being the lingering atmosphere of an irruptive presence that placed the extramundane inside the mundane, the uncanny into the otiose, carries itself forward without self-explanation into our own time as solely faith and without belief.

            So while one is compelled to believe that belief is itself moribund, to act within a faith that recognizes faithlessness – we now disbelieve in the tradition of the previous art form and we must do so as a prescience, ominous or no, of the immanent next of the new art form – we also do not abandon the more essential tradition of outgrowth, of evolution, of simple change. Indeed, it is this last thing, the only constant, so we are told, that insulates us against the mistaken stasis that commodity as a fetish seeks to contrive. All things novel within commodity relations are a fraud when placed beside the shocking scandal, even evil, of the art form and its ‘representative’, the aesthetic object. The fetish is that which adheres to a produced object through our veneration thereof. An aura is that which detaches itself from a created object to imbue us with its uncanny and yes, ominous, scandal. Was it ever the same in the epochs of religion? We may well imagine the worshipper, prone in oblation but also prone to disillusion. The oracle might fail, the priest misinterpret, the shaman lose his magic, the church empty itself. This is what the history of tradition teaches us: what is customary is genuinely present only to prepare for its own completion in the advent of the new.

            What is novel about ‘the novel’ is of course not as profound a world-historical shift as that which has taken place between religion and art or, for that matter, religion and science, over the previous four centuries, and it can never be so. But what it does suggest, at least to me, having just written the last novel, is that from now on narrative will move along a third axis and no longer be hitched up at merely two poles, the beginning and the end. In this, the story of our species takes a novel turn. It is no longer about origins and destinations, but rather immersions. Only in interactive media does this z-axis come into play. The formula for a novel presents itself as a diagram, with introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement. But interactive narrative thrusts one into an action ongoing, wherein the notion of climax no longer holds, and there is no conclusive conclusion. As such, the new art form of interactive digital media at once supplants the novel and other linear textualities; it transports it into an uncanny space within which living human beings find themselves actors, characters, forces, and all of these in a novel manner.

            On a personal note, my latest novel was a failure, but precisely due to it no longer being able to cleave to the tradition of what makes a novel ‘work’. It showed me that as a writer, I was already thinking immersively and interactively and no longer ‘analogically’. Even so, it exists, an almost 700 page document which, fitting to its plot and major heroine, is also a testament to a now lost form and forgotten formula. It is a book without a binding, it is a story without an ending, it is a desire which overcomes itself in both its own grief and ecstasy. Its epigraphs, from Bataille and Goethe respectively, abjure all judgment, mixing good and evil as one marries light and dark. Bataille speaks of yoga and torture creating an ecstasy not merely aesthetic. Goethe speaks of desire and love creating that which must betray our conceptions of both in order to mature in its own way. And just as Jesus was simultaneously the last Hebrew and the first Christian, ‘St. Kirsten’ rests uneasily and ambiguously along the delicate threshold between analog and digital, between imagination and immersion, between action and interaction. Its characters surpass their own traditions and remake themselves anew, alter the narrative from the inside out, in a way only a digital player could do. In this startling movement, we come to understand the presence of the truly novel in the shift from one art form to another. For within ‘St. Kirsten’, one can no longer distinguish between good and evil, light and dark, and most crucially, beginning and ending. It is as if we have been thrown into a world wherein none of these conceptions apply, and it is only with a sudden scandalized shock that we realize that this is, in fact, our own world after all.

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

The Disarming Decoys of Elizabethanism

The Disarming Decoys of Elizabethanism

            I was a few feet away from Elizabeth II on her royal visit to Victoria in 1984. She seemed to me a ‘decent sort’, to be English about it, but hardly otherworldly. Her consort, Philip, actually stooped to stop and chat with my young love interest.  But even at eighteen, I was disdainful of the idea of the monarchy, an archaism at best, realistically, a rationalization for steep social stratification and at worst, a malingering evil that served as gaudy and expensive signage for a latter day imperialism. But as well at only eighteen, I was blissfully ignorant of the extent and scope of the oppression involved even in the twilight of the Pax Britannica. For me, Elizabeth II was a fellow philatelist and a home-front teen heroine who repaired land rovers and literally got her hands dirty doing so. But such stains as these wash off. There are other kinds of stains, as Lady Macbeth discovered, which are more challenging to cleanse.

            Though it is patently correct to acknowledge that Elizabeth II had no direct political power, she did not lack influence. In a sense, her position is rather like that of the pope. No ‘divisions in the field’, as Stalin duly noted of the Vatican, but still possessed of a symbolic authority that rested upon ancient traditions. In a word, a voice, that the vast majority of us could never dream of so having. In another word, it was a voice that, from the post-colonial perspective, from the perspective of bitter and thence embittered experience, betrayed both itself and its authority through its decades of unblemished silence.

            Elizabeth II was thrust into her role at a youthful age due to what the war had done to her father. It basically killed him. The feudal model is graced with a kind of superiority complex, if you will, which engenders a paternalism that for all the wrong reasons, fans of shows like ‘Downton Abbey’ seem to flock to. The same model is fraught with delusory notions of ‘divine right’ and ‘sovereignty’ that were dumped by the European Enlightenment and deeply and critically analyzed by contemporary thinkers such as Georges Bataille. That the new wealth of emerging nations is eager to reproduce such relations in a microcosm – there are now five times as many slaves in the world as there were two decades ago, though slavery was itself never a function of feudalism historically – is most disturbing. But given that feudal order, George VI was as loyal to his ‘subjects’ as they were supposed to be to him. Their suffering was his suffering, for he was, if not the ‘State itself’ – as Louis XIV decorously declared of himself and could do so prior to the Revolution – still the body politic. The wounds inflicted upon this shared symbolic corpus slowly bled George VI to death.

            And so what to make of this loyalty regarding his eldest daughter? What kind of voice is the voice of a ‘modern monarch’, when the very phrase is itself an oxymoron? Is she merely a representation of the citizenry, serving them without guiding them, adding her gravitas to their collective grief, placing her ebullience in the center of their shared joy? Elizabeth II must have had many moments of doubt. One recent one that escaped the official censors which surrounded her on all sides, occurred at the climate summit in Scotland when, after listening to various politicians including Britain’s then PM, whispered to the new queen consort, ‘I find it irritating when they say and don’t do.’ Truly a ‘me too’ moment for any concerned citizen. And ‘irritating’ is a most diplomatic term to use in such a context. But just here we realize how limited Elizabeth II made her own voice. And aside from criticism, she was not at all without a piquant sense of humor, also something desperately missing in politicians. Two reported examples: outside of Windsor strolling with her single bodyguard, two American tourists asked her if she had ‘ever seen the queen?’. She replied, ‘no, but he has’, referring to her agent. And another time, she was shopping in a little village store and the young woman clerk said to her, ‘you know, you look just like the queen!’. Her dry reply: ‘how reassuring.’

            It is precisely these kinds of moments that give me the sense that Elizabeth II was not devoid of the ability to speak, she simply felt that she could not do so. It is our loss, surely, because in voicing the critique which I believe to have been fully present in her consciousness, she would have been authentically following in the footsteps of her predecessor and namesake, a woman it is well known that Elizabeth II admired and studied. Elizabeth I inherited a disastrous political mess from her father, who had declared the Church of England and risked a devastating war of religion across the realm. So she quite literally supplanted the Catholic heroine by reframing herself as the ‘Virgin Queen’. She gave worshippers the very symbolism they desired from any church and thereby avoided further chaos. Whatever may have been her personal sacrifice – presumably even queens have ‘needs’, so it is highly unlikely that Elizabeth I practiced a lifetime of abstinence – she saw it as her duty to save a nation just emerging from the feudal order into the then unknown future politics of parliament and people.

            In another word, Elizabeth I was a decoy figure, meant to disarm mass desire and turn it into collective adoration. I think Elizabeth II saw herself in that same light, and this is why she made the personal sacrifice of silence on all things that truly mattered over a period of seven tumultuous and hitherto unforeseen decades. The modern version of the Virgin, in both politics and religion alike, is the woman who does not speak and only appears. She does not visit but performs visitations. She does not meddle but only presents herself at the most apt moment, akin to the 1950s housewife and the indentured servant of today. To say that she was a prisoner is to only name the effect. Like her namesake, she imprisoned herself, and while we are astonished and perhaps a little dismissive of Elizabeth I’s idea of a revolutionary figurehead, we are also mournful that her distant successor was not yet more revolutionary, did not make her own revolution in what a monarch could have been. Instead, we had a duplicate of the first Elizabeth and in our modernity, it simply didn’t work. When I grieve for her passing, it will be this that I will be thinking of, and nothing else besides.

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