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This is War

This is War (The difference between forgetting and suppressing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Friction of Faction

The Friction of Faction (and the fiction of fraction)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donate your Brain to Pseudo-Science!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valkyrie Eleison

Valkyrie Eleison (The Ultimate Narcissism)

But slight are they, unworthy a word;

still whole are my limbs and trustily knit.

If but half so well as my arm

shield and spear had availed me,

ne’er from foe had I fled;

  • Wagner, The Valkyries, Act one, Scene one

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Types of Freedom

Two Types of Freedom: Academic and Civil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Odyssey of Theodicy

The Odyssey of Theodicy (A Metacriminal Career)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Not So Sweet Buy and Buy

The Not So Sweet Buy and Buy (can a consumer culture consume a culture?)

            This is a different question than ‘can a consumer culture consume itself’? We have seen quite evidently, especially in popular media, that this is in fact not merely an outcome thereof but a way of maintaining its dominance upon consumption in general. One views a situation comedy, especially an animated one, and if one has not viewed many years of similar programming as well as following the popular culture news, one is immediately lost. Such media constitute one long in-joke, and their satire is disingenuous at best, since it serves also as an ongoing advertisement for everyone else in the same game. Humor is itself tied to the consumption of a specific kind of media, and this also has the convenience of saving the hack writer’s time imagining innovative scripts and characters. Similarly, retreads of film and television, upshifts to streaming etc. from video games and comic books, exhibit the same symptomatology, and one might even wish to cast the older but continuing sourcing from the novel as the beginning of this self-absorbed and auto-absorbing manner of production.

            But for all this, has our contemporary consumer industry been able to reach its wider goal; that of the consumption of the entirety of the culture in which it is ensconced? This is a more difficult query and the response appears at once more nuanced. In order to take it up, we must begin with the most perceptive analyses of consumption, those of Marx and Durkheim. For the former, the well-known understanding of commodity as fetish may serve, for a moment, as a starting point. We have seen elsewhere how the religious overtones of the original fetish item, a vehicle for, and representation of, Mana, which is otherwise quite an abstract power, turns what is mere force into a usable forcefulness. It is a more focused legerdemain that can also be associated with the difference between magic and sorcery. In the most value-neutral sense, sorcery is simply magic in use. The fetish quality of a commodity turns it from a mere use object into a representation of power redefined by capital, but the much older aura of status retains its hold over the consumer, even if the source of such status has shifted from heaven to earth, as it were. Marx’s own example is pedestrian, likely purposely; a table. Unlike Heidegger, who later uses the same item to illustrate the phenomenological intimacy of dialogue amongst other such aspects of ‘closeness’ and ‘alongsideness’, Marx offers us not a whiff of old-world paternalism. Instead, he is didactic in the extreme. And a piece of furniture is not a terrible example given that such a genre of commodity had been coopted by industrial production in a manner that accosted the senses used to cottage-style craftsmanship. Furniture could well have been called ‘fine’ or even ‘beautiful’, and we pay a homage both archival and ironically fetishistic, genuflecting perhaps somewhat ludicrously, to handcrafted antique furniture in art galleries and museums. I have seen such objects placed adjacent to paintings and sculptures, as if we were to place ourselves, in our mind’s eye at least, in some Mannerist domestic scene, replete with paternalism aplenty and this time with no Heideggerean insight in sight.

            So for Marx, the table was a good mark. Now mass-produced, what could the buyer expect regarding possession and status, which prior to industry could be borrowed from the artisan, just as one would borrow status from having a Gainsborough paint one’s wife’s portrait: ‘Hmm, she’s hotter than ever I thought. Now that’s artistic genius!’ For more plebeian items, Marx desired to show that the same fetishistic display of status markers remained available. In our age, however, it was not to be associated with the ability to command ethereal forces, but rather quite material ones, and those through wealth. In pre-modern modes of production, from horticulture through the late-stages of agrarian organizations, one’s own status was linked to the procurement of status items or services. For capital, the accumulation of wealth shifted from an ‘in-itself’, or a ‘for its own sake’, as if it were either a kind of aesthetic endeavor, or indeed an esthetic one, associated with some lineage hagiography. From this the Protestants developed the idea of assignation through worldly success; wealth was a sign of soteriological favor. Especially well-evidenced in the Netherlands, this idea spread forth through Puritanist longings and Anabaptist communitarianism. A Spartan lifestyle belied a very productive lifeway, and it was not long in generational span before considerable accumulations of wealth were built up. To this day, such ethnic enclaves that remain, including those Mennonite and Hutterian, display such in-typical advantages.

            But all of this has been analyzed in detail by Weber, who is our usual third wheel in thinking aloud about modernity and capital. For Marx, wealth was to be displayed by and through the purchase of commodities, which for him, meant any object that could contain a value surplus to its own autochthonous use-value. This constitutes an extension of ipssissimosity, and such a sleight of hand can only be maintained, he felt, through consumption itself. In this, Marx’s sense of things proved incomplete, for we now understand modern advertising to be the chief vehicle of the production, not of the object or commodity, but rather of the fetish surrounding it. Its advent in 1925, the year of John Watson’s Theory of Modern Advertising, occurred almost simultaneously with the first overproduction, wherein the means of production outstripped the actual material needs of consumers. For almost a century then have we lived in this odd situation; we make more than we use, so we must make mere needs into desires. This, in a word, is the meaning of marketing.

            In the decades just prior to this seismic shift in the definition of value in capital, it was Durkheim who detailed and augmented Marx’s analytic to include the sensual and sensitive aspects of fetish in general. For Durkheim, the aura of the commodity had less to do with  a borrowed status hung up upon material outlay and rather more about the character of awe. Just as the collective conscience could be offended by a perceived injustice, so too could it recognize itself in a culture’s higher self-expressions. Beauty, in this view, still made sense as a representation of its traditional siblings; truth, the good, and the spirit. Marketing would soon learn how to exploit this sensitivity by engineering quite artificial outbursts of the ‘collective effervescence’, to use Durkheim’s phrase. In one of his most famous epigrams, if ‘religion is society worshipping itself’, then one immediately can understand the wider scope of what is at stake in modern mass media. The commodity fetish in our day must transcend the object in order to take into itself the whole of culture.

            What then would it mean to worship ourselves in this more material manner? Certainly there are collateral clues – signage, rather than truer signs, perhaps – in the cult of celebrity, the esteem of marque and logo, the esthetic purity of fashion and modeling, or yet the mystique surrounding the founder or CEO of this or that ‘revolutionary’ enterprise. All these and others no doubt foster a sense that not only is our culture a visionary one, holding in its own breast the heated breath of distant stars and with its eyes reflecting their eternal light – all the while whilst bathing in a bathos of self-stultification, mind you – but that it is also of the value that we may indeed sincerely worship it and not feel anything of either the larger narcissism which must be involved, or, more damning, of the anxiety which must drive such collective preening. Here, we must allow Durkheim to take us back to Marx in order to read again, with a fresh set of frames, the critique of capital itself. Now the rhetorical term ‘bathos’ traditionally suggests a lack of intent, and while it may not be central to the goals of advertising and marketing to create this slide from what we take to be the historically sublime to what can be taken as trivial – almost everything within the ambit of popular media is at least this, if not actually ridiculous or yet absurd – in any calculated manner, the mere fact that it has the power to manifest the nothing much as something and even something great suggests to its latter-day sorcerers that magic, at least of a sort, is yet extant in our otherwise disenchanted world.

            Yet this cannot be a conclusion, for it begs the implication that our culture is, as a whole, trivial. I would like to think that this is not the case, even if we are often turned in the direction of the valueless by the fetish of status-value and that of the marque. One might go so far, without being overly vain, and suggest that for some of the legendary marques, whose brand-value has distinguished itself consistently over many decades, that the actual quality of the products in question do merit some respect, if perhaps not outright adoration or yet worship. Ferrari, the brand with the most current admiration of this sort, could serve as an example of a product which actually is what it claims to be, at least in its actual use. Whether or not its aura is transcendental is not really at issue; all it needs to do is transcend its general genre of commodity. In this, a keenly-crafted and daringly-designed machine can carry a near-primordial torch; the shaman accomplished his tricks ad hoc. Sorcery, unlike magic, is always directed to some specific purpose.

            Yes, but in capital we also have magic itself as a commodity of sorts, for a Ferrari accomplishes its specific engineering purpose in it remaining an automobile, and nothing else. But if it were perceived in capital as only a car it would lose most of its value all along the line. So, marketing has, in addition to point-of-sale, the deeper and more sophisticated task of maintaining aura ‘after-market’, so to speak. The fact that a new auto loses about a quarter of its ticket value when driven off the lot – it is now a ‘used car’ or, in a marketing lingo perishingly close to that Orwellian, ‘pre-owned’ – must not impinge upon its value as a status item, a commodity in the Marxian sense. And indeed, the exotic car’s new owner cares not a jot that they have been stiffed however much cash on the barrel upon getting behind the wheel of such a vehicle. Even my relatively quite staid and stoic Lexus sports sedan was able to overcome any such hint of regret on my part when I purchased it new many years ago. But less mystically, its truer value has manifest itself in the fact that though now 16 years old, it still drives like a new car. Surely such testimonials from the ‘consumer’s themselves’ would be of the greatest value to any marketer. But even here, the suasion of worship is present; a testimonial is suggestive of a testament; but then again we are today not recording the irruptive Mana of a messiah, but rather the manufactured mimesis of the forces of nature and cosmos, ever aloof to the Babel of humanity’s vainer desires.

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

The Divine Sodomy

The Divine Sodomy (You might think it very God of me)

            Imagine if Dante had written Meet the Feebles instead of Peter Jackson. According to Auerbach, one of the founders of comparative literary criticism, a literary triptych based on a complete fantasy both inaugurated realism in Western literature and beyond this, the image of the self in contemporary fiction. Seen in this light, Dante’s seemingly semi-satirical vision of the Thomistic afterlife was stunningly successful in convincing the very few readers it must have originally had – remember, this is 1308-1321 – that somehow as vile a figure as Bernard of Clairvaux would be the best guide to Paradiso. Yeah, right. Even the more plausible idea that the work helped establish the Tuscan language as the general Italian vernacular is a bit of a ‘so what’? Clearly the merit of religious fantasy lies not so much in any allegorical narrative but rather in the art of the writing itself; in this case the High Medieval poetry which is unmatched in any similar epic. Otherwise, it’s simply the author, under the guise of the divine, doing us up the collective, well, you know where.

            It wasn’t until 1472 that the qualifier ‘divine’ was added, by none other than Boccaccio, subsequently to appear in print under the title we know it today by 1555. It is within this period, the High Renaissance this time, that the work took hold, not of the growing humanistic imagination, but rather of the world of arts and letters. On the one hand, the first-person of Dante as disembodied pilgrim lends itself to the idea of self-portraiture, but one might be forgiven – term used advisedly – if he was rather testing his own idea of personhood in the light of values that he as author had already rejected. Why call such a serious undertaking, ahem, a comedy in the first place? T.S. Eliot’s own cantos on his own age of modernity, seemingly so dryly driven, mark the author as a critic after all, though one in the lineage of John Donne and to a certain extent, William Blake as well. But there are a number of ways in which to engage in literary KulturKritik. Today, at least, we can appreciate the underside of Dante’s vision, the nether regions whereabouts good things happen to bad people, speaking of forgiveness.

            But this piece is supposed to be about types of Godhead, perhaps pace its introduction. In Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses we find some most valuable cross-cultural perspective: ‘What kind of God listen to you complain all day?’. Precisely. The Christian God, apparently open 24/7 to entreaty and plaintiff, would not rate as divine at all in many other civilizations. Certainly, in so doing, He takes out his frustrations upon erring humanity through the tortuous pilgrim’s progress in this version of the afterlife. The original Egyptian idea of posthumous evaluation, momentary as it was in their underworld, not even lasting long enough to perhaps have felt violated in some intimate manner, has been distended apace. This suggests that while the ancient Egyptian was no bottom and Horus no top, it is quite otherwise by the time we get to Christianity. Of course, no one could beat the ancient Hebrews – likely the scions of the displaced Akhenatonites – for unbending themselves to a God who was perpetually wearied of their lack of attentiveness to his wisdom. Much of the Jewish testaments is a repetitive accounting of ‘Look, I told you guys to do this and you didn’t do it, and look what happened! And now you come braying to me to fix it! God!’, and all this to be mouthed in a Brooklyn accent, of course.

            But more seriously, folks, the attempt by historical Christian writers, beginning with Augustine and perhaps ending just before Thomas Merton, to maintain a metaphysical aspect to their Godhead is no divine comedy at all, but rather its opposite. This human tragedy misses entirely the point of both the radical new ethics Jesus made manifest, as well as the equally historical fact of His presence on the earth, as one of us, living and dying, working and loving, and placing Himself at risk on an almost daily basis, even though He too was understood as being a Hebrew. Perhaps this was where the truer tension lay, however, for if He had been Greek, the Jews would have ignored Him, not seen Him as a threat. How could a Greek be ‘King of the Jews’? Ask Jacques Derrida, maybe, for in his terms ‘Greek-Jew is Jew-Greek’. Hmm, what was that again? I take up this obscure quote only to provide a bridge back into the topic at hand, right or left it matters not; the Greek gods were disdainful of their mortals and to the point of outright hatred, while the Jewish god was merely offended by them: ‘Hey, I try to love you guys, but really, what’s in it for me?’ When Nietzsche suggests that a number of these pre-Christian dynamics held such peoples to be in the ‘correct relationship to their God’, he is reminding us of the crucial difference between the divine and the human, the transcendental and the historical and so on: a God, by definition, cannot have a human interest.

            That we also have imagined a different narrative, one in which the divinity actually recasts Himself as a human being, is nothing less than revolutionary. But even now, some two millennia after the facts, we do not own that narrative, preferring to place this new form of being at a similar distance as had been occupied by earlier guises of Godhead. What kind of God, again? And while we do not need to agree, in the least, with any potential implication of Nietzsche’s logically accurate reminder – for one, that the only authentic kind of God would be happiest coming at us from behind, as it were, with all the divine oversight that might be had from such a position – we do need to get a different grip on the one God whose earthly presence shatters the whole edifice of what could constitute divinity at all, West or East. Buddha was a man ascending, Mohammed a prophet divinely inspired, so of the three second-age agrarian world systems, only Jesus was a God who had descended to become one of us, in the flesh. To take a step back even today and contemplate the implications of this version of Godhead gives one pause.

            Or at least it should. For the model of more humane, compassionate, concernful, human relations had thus been written. No allegory, no comedy, no tragedy, no satire of itself or of others, it simply told the truth of things and that truth was not at all a divine one, but human through and through. And yet we, who are human and remain so, have almost entirely ignored it. Clearly, perhaps allegorically speaking once again, we are more comfortable being metaphysically sodomized, which in the ‘end’ can only be a plug, excuse me, for the atheists among us. ‘Thank God, finally some people who want to take responsibility for themselves.’, Yahweh mutters sotto voce. Oh yeah, the vernacular, right; maybe its time that we termini di rapporto anale. Or something to that effect. And in keeping with our other literary temporal benchmarks, high time.

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

The Quest of the Question

The Quest of the Question (Well, you asked)

                                    Greater glory in the sun,

                                    An evening chill upon the air,

                                    Bid imagination run

                                    Much on the Great Questioner;

                                    What He can question, what if questioned I

                                    Can with fitting confidence reply.

W.B. Yeats (1928)

            The ability to question is the residuum of faith. It is a uniquely human attribute, unknown to us in any other known creature. One presumes, upon asking a question of any variety, that there will at least be some sort of response. Even the proverbial ‘rhetorical’ question, favored by those who actually desire an absence of response, know that the queried has in fact already responded, and perhaps in kind. This is the element of faith in the question itself; that you will respond. And even if there are a variety of ways to characterize such responses as there may be, from answer to explanation, from retort to explication and so on, the essence of dialogue has been initiated. We are ‘throwing words across’ to one another, and more importantly, contributing, even in some minute manner, to the human conversation which is us.

            I have spent my life asking questions. I was fortunate to have no memorably authoritarian teachers nor suchlike mentors, no mockery the result of my childhood, no lasting censure the lot of my adolescence. The one downside to all of this encouragement was that youth, as a matter of course, does not always know how to frame a question, nor even to ask ‘the right’ questions, as long as that is taken in the sense of there being more perceptive means at our disposal than at first glance, and very much not in any narrow sense of what is ‘proper’. For questioning is an act radical to deportment of all kinds. In a life phase where the internalization of the generalized other is front and center most of the time, the ability to question must be honed almost in the shadows. Long live the mentor who can guide a young person through these spaces, at once so close to our beings and yet distant in their dreams.

            When I think of the over fifteen years of ethnographic fieldwork I accomplished, the hundreds of interviews both formal and informal, the sense that within each about another hundred actual queries may have been made – that’s ten thousand questions right there – I am struck with the forbearance shown by so many ‘informants’, as they used to be called in traditional methods courses. Now that said, it is the case that most people enjoy, or are at least willing, to talk about themselves, and who better to do so, we naturally imagine. Even so, the human scientist, pending his tenure, is ever edging closer to aspects of existence which most people take to be ‘personal’. And so the usual etiquette must be observed: ‘Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?’, which is, perhaps fittingly, already a personal query. Never have I had the response ‘You already have’, which the Mark Twain or Groucho Marx like wit would engender. But other, much more expected responses do abound: ‘Well, it would depend on what it is.’, or ‘Sure, but don’t expect me to answer it, or give you the answer you want’ (meaning that one’s answer might be incomplete or irrelevant), or, very commonly ‘Of course, fire away’ or the like. The response to this personal prequel depends very much upon the depth of one’s relationship, and this is so for both professional and private circumstance. The ungrammatical quality that typically characterizes the open response – ‘do you mind? Of course (I mind) – is brushed aside by both parties. Sometimes, pending class background, one receives a grammatically correct ‘not at all’, instead of an ‘of course’, but this too is trivial. When I taught methods for many years at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I called attention to the picayune minutiae of interview technique only because that was what was called for in training, as it were. In the field, much of this drops away, as it tends to do for all strictly academic professionalization, be it in teaching or researching. This is the first lesson of fieldwork, in a sense; that what you already know will only return to aid your quest after the intensive disillusion of you knowing anything at all has concluded. Sometimes, this process takes years.

            At the same time, I myself was trained in the generation after the classic if also ludicrous ethnographic pith helmet perception that all one needed was a pencil and a pad of paper and off you go! Yes, there’s always something to be said for adventure, and my sense of my student peers in graduate school was that the desire for excitement, one of the prime motivators for even engaging in fieldwork of any kind, was certainly present. But there is a line between having an adventure and ‘going native’, just as there is a corresponding line between asking an open-ended question in good faith and asking a leading question, the latter occupying a good deal of time in class, explaining to students how not to do so. In general, however, fieldwork produces discussion, dialogues, conversations, interlocutions, and never interrogations. Only the most incompetent researcher or journalist, police officer, doctor or other health care worker – and I have taught numerous of all of the above in my classes – distinguishes himself by his ineptly procedural questioning. Throwing words across is something primordial, and, as stated, makes human existence something distinct from any other known form of life. And while it might take a little bit of cajoling, or even some good-natured chicanery, to bring such a process out in the other, once this has been accomplished, the fieldworker always gets far more than she ever needed or indeed ever bargained for.

            But there are other kinds of questions than those professionals need ask. There are literary questions, historical questions, questions of conscience, questions about the nature of existence and the perhaps overdone ‘cosmic’ questions to boot. It would be bad form to simply move from one to another as if in the end they could be so distinctly descried and ahead of time as well, but what I can do is speak to them as if I were speaking to their source, thereby mimicking the ethnographic process but better realizing the De Profundis of its meaning. The literary question revolves round the idea that what is not real can simulate reality so closely that the reader feels like they are living another life. This is the same question that animates ‘immersive’ video game scripts, something I have come to as a writer quite recently. Literature is not living in the same way that art is not life, but the fact that we desire it to accomplish an ‘as if’ for us and time again, speaks in turn to how we perceive our own actual lives. Thus the literary question opens itself onto that existential, and that historical, and through both wider apertures repeats itself with some essential insistence. The question of the future of the world, and we in it, is very much the same question as that of the world’s history as it can be known. But at once we are made aware that we have only asked of this history a certain kind of question, and perhaps it is time to change tacks. Feminism, at its best, is a shining example of this kind of movement, and phenomenology bases its entire discursive presence upon this same perception.

            By far the most personally pressing type of question is that of conscience. Conscience is the ethical aspect of consciousness, a kind of interactive compass which, quite aside from marking out moral directions in their ideal cast, responds to the ways of said world and points ad hoc toward directions anew. Just so, for all the adventures a literary cast of heroes may have, ultimately the quest undertaken tests their respective consciences, far more than it does their combined skill sets or slowly evolving knowledge and experience. The lesson in the quest is thus a moral one, or, perhaps, an amoral one, but either way, it is not the world which is finally at stake but rather one’s conscience. Mostly unspoken, questions of conscience require self-reflection, meditation, and a kind of musement which departs from that aesthetic. This ‘silent dialogue’ within each of us as human beings participatory in the wider aspect of species-essence in language and language use, employs anxiety as a catalyst toward concernful being. But because that being must always be ‘in’ the world and at once in itself it must eschew the easier response of simply residing as an ‘in-itself’ – ‘its your world, I’m only living in it’ – and confront the much more challenging sense that I am in-dwelling as a Dasein in that world and thus also the world is of the closest-to-me without quite becoming a ‘mine ownmost’. If this is too turgid, think of it as a way of ferreting oneself into the puzzle of living in a world which is not our own, but to which we must cleave our desires and dreams alike. We do make the worlding of the world kindred to our thrown projects, just as we, as historical beings, write some small part of that world into its holistic history.

            Any question promotes a momentary Gestaltkreis. It asks  the other to focus her attention on it alone. It invites her into its solemn circle, and commits itself to hearing whatever response there may be. Because the question itself does not shy away from this indefinite finitude, my reply can indeed be uttered with a fitting confidence.

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