A Modernist Gospel

A Modernist Gospel (H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, 1899).

            Published first as a serial and thence complete in the same year as Acton began the bulk of his ‘Lectures in Modern History’, and several months before Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and yet several more before Nietzsche ultimately succumbed to a genetic brain disorder that had also claimed the lives of his father and brother, Wells’ early dystopian novel came hard on the heels of a series of legendary hits including The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. The original bore the title ‘When the Sleeper Wakes’ which was altered, along with some other minor edits, by Wells in the 1910 edition. In the preface to the third edition of 1921, he remarks that he no longer felt that such a future would in fact be the destiny of humankind. Over a century later, his vision of an autocratic capitalist hierarchy made manifest in a social organization kindred with that portrayed in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and satired in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), we are not quite as sure, as was the author, of our collective fate.

            Wells disliked Metropolis, and we can infer that he felt it a plot device to ‘awaken’ one of the elites to the misery of the minions who supported he and his peers at the expense of their lives. Our contemporary geopolitics bears Lang out but as well, the Wells of 1898, when The Sleeper Awakes was originally penned.If it is plausible that most of our very much knowing elites take little enough care to ensure their longitudinal position in society, it is perhaps equally unlikely that, if indeed apprised of such conditions, any one of them would become the revolutionary hero we see in both Wells’ novel and Lang’s film. In the novel, the character Graham is cast as a modern messiah, as well as representing the incarnation of a myth, long disused by the literary future. He does not sleep for six days, then falls into a trancelike slumber upon the seventh, in an allusion to the Creator God of the Ancient Hebrews. After awakening 203 years later, he is held prisoner for three days and thence emerges, studying the changes for another three days before reaching a decision to carry forward the revolt which had originally been engineered and thence coopted by the great capitalist figure, Ostrog. This ‘eastern gothic barbarian’ become manager allusion is also transparent. Ultimately, Graham does ensure the people’s revolution is successful, but only through his self-sacrifice. In the climactic personal scene, he stands aloof to personal love, that of Helen Wotton, the young woman who has been his voice of conscience.

            The novel is thus only temporarily dystopian, and its theme is subjectively about self-sacrifice, objectively about political manipulation and exploitation, one of Wells’ leitmotifs. Even if he is arguably the most visionary author in the English language – it is a challenge to see anything new in science fiction and related genres if one knows Wells’ entire corpus of fiction – he was still a child of his time. Socialism and eugenics dominated his outlook, him seeing both as the chief manners of improving the human race. That we have rejected both almost entirely – the human genome project and the social welfare state are perhaps the residue of these once much grander ideas – Wells might well have seen as a final acquiescence to the thralldom of capital. He writes still later, in 1923, that with the publication of Men Like Gods (1921) that he had ‘tired of telling brighter tales of the human future to a world intent on destroying itself’. No reflective person today would not share his pain.

            Wells himself takes great pains with his thick description of the world, c. 2101. That it is peppered with imaginative innovations in the technical realm does nothing to distract the outsider from its basic inequality and injustice. The novel is a handy read for anyone who desires some much-needed perspective on our own reality, 2024. If anything, we have travelled nearer to Wells’ vision in the interim; half-way, he might judge us, if he could see our condition today. That we too have our technical spices and distractions, that our ability to do things in and to the world has far outmatched our ability to both think and care about the self-same world, all this he would have recognized and indeed predicted with his usual accuracy. But his late Victorian prose serves a more profound purpose than immersion; it allows the reader to just as painfully work through this terrifying vision with tools that are not made for such work. In this, we are cast back upon our own contemporary ethics, and each of us falls back upon her respective conscience, both of which seem unwilling, or yet unable, given their entanglement, to vouchsafe a humane future. We are as is the sleeper. Wells’ agenda is to awaken us, and that at a structural level, not at all one ideological. He is well aware that even if we do not literally sleep, we are yet asleep to all that truly matters to humanity.

            Helmuth Plessner reminds us that by ‘dividing the universe into fields of action, the world loses its face’. That we harbor the means of self-destruction and, once again, have entered a cycle wherein politicians are more amenable to committing global suicide on our behalves, he understands as merely the logical consequence of making a technique of cosmology. Oddly, we can understand this ‘discursifying’ of creation begins with the original Western gospels, its four-square of discipleship reporting as allegorical disciplines; the taxman representing government, the doctor representing the sciences, the seer the remaining enchantedness of the world, and finally, the youth, who represents the future. We understand the final three years of Jesus’ existence through lenses of action, each with the germs of their respective fields. Our ongoing harvest has left much of those four fields fallow, and Wells plays upon this with his contrast between the cynical rationalizations of Ostrog and the call to conscience of Wotton. The fruit of the gospel remains the sustenance of only the most marginal. Graham is referred to as ‘God’ and as ‘the one who has come’ and so on, in various moments when the people are encouraging or agitating for his presence and his Word.

            It was not at all peculiar for fin de siècle authors to rewrite the gospels in modernist forms, or yet pen new gospels entirely – Thus Spake Zarathustra is of the course the stand-out to this regard; once again in four books – and this interest speaks of their disenchantment with the idea of progress and their sense of the coming apocalypse. That August 1914 ended the bright-eyed gaze of both evolution as progress and Western culture as objective spirit, allowing John Bury to recapitulate a ‘history of the idea’ itself by 1920, should present a serious caveat to our own contemporary world visions, humane or inhumane the both. That Wells was able to conjure, in his own inimitable and unsparing style, a story resolutely current to the denizens of a different age, is an enduring testament to his own prescient imagination. But that we have celebrated many others of his works which only at best indirectly touch upon the key problems our species faces, presents a much more dubious record of our willingness to close our own hearts off to our consciences, thereby denuding consciousness itself of its built-in compass.

            At once straddling the genres of fantasy, horror, science fiction, dystopia, and tall tale, The Sleeper Awakes is, finally, simply a very solid and relevant narrative that sold well on the backs of Wells’ early legendary works. Its challenge to us is not so much literary – the novel of today has displaced third party external description with a deeply introverted sense of what is going on in the character’s mind, and this not gleaned by way of described emotions but rather through ongoing reflection and its corresponding personal action – but very much as a statement of a critical politics. To reply to such a pointed query is to make manifest our shared reality as it is, and not as stated by either government or corporation. That Wells has provided to us both the model and the goal leaves us in his inestimable debt.

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

Autobiography in Fiction

Autobiography in Fiction (when the author isn’t quite dead)

            An old friend of mine recently read one of my short stories and noted how I had used my own first name as the narrator’s, the only time I have ever done so. “Did this suggest that you saw yourself in his role, or that part of the story was something that happened to you personally?”, he asked. These are two intriguing questions, and admittedly, they put a flea in my ear to examine my entire corpus of fiction in response. The perduring question that backdrops them is of course, ‘how much reality is there in fiction?’, and that in general. The source-point of such reality, however much of it may or may not be present, is itself problematic; personal memory. Asking if the reader can trust the writer is not so different than asking if the writer can trust his own experience. Indeed, my experience of writing fiction is that it is a form of waking dream, so there may well be as much of the unconscious life in the text as there is conscious memory of waking experience.

            However this may be, such questions remain, and each author, in her desire to become a discursive label rather than a mere person, must confront them in some manner or other. For myself, I began by listing each of the moments where I had quite calculatingly borrowed from my life experience. This kind of material is specific, at first not metaphorical and not to be interpreted as anything but the most convenient of plot devices. Such an overview produced more than I had imagined, and while I have never written the much-vaunted ‘autobiographical novel’ – D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, for example – I am guilty of pilfering autobiographical memory in a lesser sense – along the lines of, say, H.G. Wells’ Tono Bungay, by way of contrasting case. My early novella used a setting from my childhood that I knew well. My first novel used two outré experiences I actually had to help set its partially phantasmagorical tone. Certain characters in short fiction were gently based upon this or that person I had known, more or less well. In others, I placed a part of myself, named or unnamed, in the role of observer, or principle actor. In one short, I was an aspiring writer who lacked commercial success, for instance. In my first mainstream novel, About the Others, many dream-sequences were personal memories, and the protagonist is a retired professor who is too sure of his own profundity. Hmmm, all this sounds vaguely familiar. In my second such effort, the novel The Understudies, one of the three principles is, once again, a retired professor and philosophical author, though this time one full of self-doubt rationalized by a nostalgic sexual swagger. My blushes, Watson.

            Suffice to say, that after such a cursory examination of the presence of the author in his work, there was much to be accounted for, even at the level of plot. But what of that of metaphor and meaning? Dare I ask, given the lay of the lexical land thus far? That youth figure prominently in most of my fiction, that their task is one of coming of age, of confronting injustice, of working through their own conflict and building character quite literally, might suggest that I myself am yet undergoing a similar self-understanding. Youth becoming adults is a veritable leitmotif in my corpus. Youth learning to live, to love, to gain community, encountering danger and death, are recurring themes. Youth unjustly treated, even ill-treated, at the hands of adults, and that same youth becoming political, dangerous, engaged in self-styled campaigns of justice, thinking little of parricide or what-have-you, on their road to a higher freedom. The pre-Barthes literary critic would pause in wonder at it all; does this author desire to relive his youth in a more noble manner? Or is he yet still a youth in vital areas of his own character?

            Far more so than general non-fiction, let alone scholarly work, does fiction expose the reader to the writer, and that for better or worse. Some authors manipulate this dynamic in their favor, by posing as far more experienced or worldly than they actually are or ever were. There may well be a vicarious element to fiction that is more the act of the writer than that of the reader, though we do not as often think of it this way. And it is the case, perhaps tellingly, that writing fiction allows the author to purvey not only his desires upon a public, unsuspecting or no, but also, more radically, his vision. It is this latter that dominates my own fiction; not desire vain so much as perhaps demythology in vain. I generally write agenda fiction, so by that standard alone, it can never be understood as art, that aside from not being myself an artist. Such an agenda could be interpreted, however, as giving voice to much that is absent in my own existence, more pointedly than even the wider reality of its lack in our shared world. If Nietzsche, somewhat self-effacingly, tells us that, after all, ‘the philosopher has only his opinions’, then what mere fiction author could say more?

            Such a two-front examination of fictional narrative, on the one hand, deliberate borrowing from reality for plot decoration or device, for character sketch or place setting and, on the other, the inveigling of the authorial unconscious into the very fabric of the literary textile, has one further insight of note: that we ourselves as human beings live a dual existence. At once, we are waking selves charged with the socius’ diktat to perform as normative a set of roles as we can muster to ourselves, and somewhat in spite of this or even because of it pending circumstance, we are as well all that which social norms seek to deny. It is through fiction, literary or no, that the writer explores the fluid dynamic which exists between these existential states; the one attempting to be graceful but the other perhaps approaching grace itself.

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

Regression Analysis Redefined

Introduction: Regression Analysis Redefined

            We live in the time of the world regression. How do we then respond to such a world, wherein what appears to have become the most plausible sensibility is the least sensible, the most probable the least possible? In a word, that time can run backward, that history can fold in on itself, and that culture can regress into, and unto, its childhood, even yet its primordial inexistence. And though such an event in some of its symptoms can be measured statistically, this volume of studies suggests that we redefine the analytic of regression. To do so, we might use the following rubrics:

            1. That regression is present any time one desires to base reality upon fantasy, and has thereby lost the ability to distinguish between the two.

            2. That regression is present any time nostalgia is in the ascendant, no matter the cultural thematics or personalist narratives involved.

            3. That regression is present whenever childhood, a mere phase of life, is exalted as both innocent and yet also wise at once.

            4. That regression is present if and when youth and its experiences, once again, a brief phase in human existence, are negatively sanctioned, limited, mocked, or bullied.

            5. And most importantly, when history is itself understood as the handmaiden of myth, and thus its auto-teleology is aborted, regression is the source of this inauthenticity.

            The exaltation of childhood, the disdaining of youth, the disbelief in reality through ‘anti-science’, the dismantling of history through ideology, the inability to discriminate between fantasy and the world as it is – perhaps observed most popularly in our entertainment fictions and more darkly, in our moral panics – and, most insipidly, the inveigling of a marketeering that plays upon our personal desires to re-attain lost youth or yet childhood in the form of generational nostalgia in fashion, popular music, and once again, emerging from the shadows, in mores and norms, is the source of the world-crisis today. ‘I want to return our education system to about 1930’, says Dennis Prager, the billionaire founder of PragerU, a private sector purveyor of fantasist school curricula, ‘but without all the bad stuff’. Which would be? The only thing that comes to mind that would perhaps be better would be textual literacy – more people read books a century ago than today; but at the same time we must ask, what kind of books? – but this too would have to be oriented to other more contemporary forms, such as that digital, in order for it to be salutary to literacy in general. This is but a single example of hundreds globally, which would include populist and nationalist movements in politics, ethnic-based religious affiliations and churches, charter schools based upon ethnicity feigned or historical, government policies that pander to the neuroses of otherwise absent parents, and so on. Let us recast as questions each of the five points listed above, which designate types of regressive presence.

            1. How can one distinguish between what is real and what is non-real?

            The irreal is a third form of general human experience which occurs only when something ‘irruptive’, an event or a presence which breaks into waking reality as if one suddenly and momentarily dreamed awake, makes itself known. These kinds of experiences are rare and we, in our modernity, no longer interpret them in the traditional mode of the visionary or the religious-inspired presence. That they continue to occur sporadically is certainly of interest, given that the cultural matrix which might be seen to have generated them in the first place is long lost. This phenomenological concept can serve us in a different manner today: anything that tends to hitch itself up to the authentically irruptive but is not itself irreal is fantasy, pure and simple. The difference between Israel and Zion is a current example of a political attempt to base a modern nation-state on a legendary construct. Similar historical examples abound: Victorian England’s smittenness with Arthurian Britain, given ideological, that is, unhistorical, literacy by Mallory; The Second and Third Reichs’ genuflections directed to Nordic mythos, given artistic transcendence, but equally non-historical this time, by Wagner. Is there now a Zionist composer or children’s author about?

            2. Why do our desires for youthfulness take on a nostalgic formula?

            Mostly for market purposes, childhood and youth are extended far beyond their phase of life appropriateness. It may well be that the reappearance of neoconservative or even neo-fascist norms regarding child-raising and the curtailing of youthful desire and wonder are the result of simple economics; the market targeting the only people with non-responsible disposable income coupled with the general lack of control over anything but consuming by which children and youth are characterized. In this sense, youth consumption is no different from anorexia; a simple attempt to exert agency in an otherwise adult world. Even if this is the case, however, such regressions are no less than evil, as they strike at the heart of what makes youth profound. Hazlitt, writing at the time when ‘youth’ itself was a novel concept, is correct when he states that youth’s very lack of experience is what makes it not only a unique period of human existence, but also gives it its patent sense of wonder, wanderlust, desireful passion, and naïve compassion all at once. From our first love to our first knowing brush with death, such events appear once again to be irruptive, so filled with wonder are they. The very absence of the human irreal in mature being prompts a regressive desire to ‘return’ to our salad days, green not so much with envy but with a desperate melancholic anxiety.

            3 and 4. How is it possible that the absence of experience generates wisdom?

            It isn’t. If experience can sometimes harden our biases, turning us into ironic bigots, it also has the power to banish prejudice and for all time. Akin to the jaded hypostasy that suffering makes one insightful – for the artist this may be true in some cases, for the rest of us, suffering produces primarily misery, secondarily, resentment, even ressentiment – lack of temporally adjudicated biographical experience in a life is, writ small, the lack of historical consciousness in a culture. What adults are reacting to in the child-mind is a naivety that appears to make suffering blissful; if only we could manage to bracket the world so easily! And what we are reacting to in the mind of the youth is the ability to dare to question the world as it is. Now this second aspect of the illusion of the absence of experience is an excellent tutor, if only we adults would take it up with all due seriousness. Instead, we seek to limit the questions of youth just as we limit youth’s ability to express its phase-of-life’s essential characters; wonder, desire, passion, romance, and most importantly, its rebellion against authority. If we merely took the last facet of the youthful gem and lived it, leaving the other more phantasmagorically inclined imagery behind us where it belongs, we would be by far the better for it.

            5. How do we attain an ‘effective historical consciousness’?

            The phrase is Gadamer’s, and points to a kind of working pragmatics that, in its ‘fusion of horizons,’ generates Phronesis, or practical wisdom. One simple way to approach a sophisticated state of being is to recall to ourselves the how-to skills associated with a specific material task, such as fixing something around the house or cooking a meal, a project in the workplace or helping a child with their studies. These are aspects of a consciousness directed ad hoc, or to some specific task or object. They are also the stuff of Weber’s ‘rational action directed towards a finite goal’. Finite goal agency is, in turn, a manner of thinking about the self: I am an actor who needs to get from here to there – what do I need to do to accomplish this movement? The process by which I do so, whatever its content, is a temporal one, but one that belies its own historicity due to its intense focus on what is at hand. Nevertheless, time has passed, and a small part of one’s own personal history has been acted out. Now think of species-being in History as a form of agentive action directed to specific, if various, series of goals. This can not only provide some inspiration in anxious times, when once again, the mythic apocalypse is being contrived as an overlay upon very material conflicts regarding resources and their distribution, it can also give us, as individuals, the sense that what we do matters within the wider cultural history of which we are a part.

            Finally, the redefined regression analysis (RRA), differs from demythology in that it cannot take place through art. It is an aspect of critical and reflective thought alone. Its effect may be equally disillusionary, but its means must stay analytic, never adopting either the allegorical or the agenda narrative. It also differs from a deontology, which is to be seen more as another effect therefrom rather than a source method. Demythology is an anti-transcendentalist critique that is perhaps best performed in art, deontology similarly in philosophy, but RRA in the sciences, and specifically in the human sciences, their critical allies.

            This volume of essays, both popular and scholarly, is dedicated to redefining the analysis of regression in all its forms. It does so at a time when we are witnessing a worldwide regression, the psyche of which is desperate, anxious, and fearful, all of the very weakest aspects of our shared human character. Instead of giving in to those base impulses, grasp rather the more noble cast of compassionate critique, both in your own life and in the life of the world itself.

            The following two articles first appeared in edited form in peer-reviewed journals which are now defunct. They are reprinted here in their original state for the first time.

            2011v    ‘On Distinguishing Between Criticism and Critique in the Light of Historical Consciousness’, in Journal of Arts and Culture Volume 2, #3, Nov. 2011. Pp. 71-78 dc. ISSN 0976-9862

2012v    ‘Is there Hermeneutic Authenticity in Pedagogical Praxis?’ in Journal of Education and General Studies, volume 1 #8, July 2012. Pp. 180-187 dc ISSN 2277-0984

The Good-in-Itself versus the Good-for-Oneself

The Good-in-itself versus the Good-for-Oneself (an excursus in grounded meta-ethics)

            The term ‘meta-ethics’ first presents an inherent contradiction. Ethics is, by definition, about the space of action in the world. It is grounded only in the sense that it occurs in medias res, on the ground, whilst running along. It is perhaps typical of analytic philosophy to make the goal an ‘in itself’ and then the means to it quite contextual. The leap of faith is simple enough: can we establish a principle – in this case, about the essence of morality – based upon all that is unprincipled in itself. This faith does not, perhaps ironically, include a moral judgment, for ‘unprincipled’ is meant to suggest only that which is relative to condition. Think of Durkheim’s understanding of ‘deviant’, which was highly statistical, and in which the normative was equally seen as simply that which most people in fact do, or believe. It is the same, and even more so, for his kindred concept of ‘pathological’, which is deliberately contrasted with the stark and even jarring term ‘normal’, so disdained today. The social fact, to again borrow from the same thinker, that everyone is ‘normal somewhere’, belies without entirely betraying the sense that our shared condition is not experienced in an identity relation with itself. But if one seeks a principle, one would either have to assume that there are actions which lend themselves to a choate whole as in a structure made of differing but corresponding elements, or that at some point, with the presence of enough of a certain kind of action or sets of actions, that a Gestalt belatedly arrives which can be thenceforth named ‘morality’, or some other like category.

            As a hermeneutic thinker, I am cautious about such claims. Ethics is never by itself, or thus an ‘in itself’. It is quite unlike physics in these regards, which, though certainly not acting in the proverbially ‘closed system’, it is nevertheless highly predictable in its correlative effects, and can be, with great aplomb, analytically worked out backwards, as it were, to specific precipitates and even ‘causes’. Now it is not that ethics so named is random, entirely spontaneous, or improvised on the spot every time. Clearly, there is some relationship between the action of the good and the good in principle, and it is thus a matter of discovering more exactly what that connection may be, how it has altered itself over time, and how living human beings perceive it. But unlike the formal study of meta-ethics, what I will suggest here is that we begin quite inductively and without any principled goal in mind, by attempting to understand a Verstehen of Verstandnis, if you will, which ultimately returns to a Selbstverstandnis. This ‘selfhood’ is not, in the end, oneself, but rather about the self as it is currently experienced and acted out by our contemporaries in the world as it is. Insofar as it is not overly personal nor overtly subjective, this selfhood should contain within it at least a semblance of a principle.

            Let us begin then by taking a familiar example in which the contrast between action and order may be glimpsed. It is very often the case, in teaching undergraduates of any age or possessed of any credo, that they imagine that their personal experience can by itself generate facts, or that what they have known is the whole of social reality. Long ago, when I was still myself possessed of a sense of experiential superiority, I responded to a hapless young student who, in reacting to the statistic about youthful marriage which, at the time, had it that 85% of marriages entered into before the age of 26 ended in divorce, objected that her parents had been high school sweethearts, meeting one another at age 14, married at 18, and were yet together some decades later. Congratulate them, I replied, they are part of the 15%. This generated buckets of belly-laughs from the rest of the class and I am sure the poor thing was humiliated. That I only felt some minor bad conscience about it years later, suggests that ethics, at least of the pedagogic variety, had been conspicuously absent in this specific case.

            At the same time, such an event served the wider case quite well, as it pointed out, rather pointedly, that one’s own experiences were not enough to understand fully the human condition. Now, if we take the same sensibility to ethics, we might argue that since one’s own actions in the world are not representative of any kind of morality which might be known by other means, they are also not the fullest expressions thereof. What is meant by this latter remark? If one does not know the good, one cannot be either a representative of it, nor can one express it through one’s actions. This is a moral statement, and as such, it evaluates the value of the principle, not by its enactment, but rather, to borrow from Foucault, by virtue of its ‘enactmental complex’. The status of morals in society is one of the salient variables for analytic philosophy’s idea of what meta-ethics might be. The term ‘status’ implies both its state and its value, what it is in itself and how we esteem it, even if we do not precisely know what it is, or what else it may be, unto itself. The old-hat problem of our perception of the world comes immediately to mind, but morality, as Durkheim for one stringently reminded us, is not of ‘this’ world at all. It is social alone, for, as he calls it, ‘there is no other moral order apart from society’. Before Vico, one could read ‘not of this world’ as implying an otherworld; in the premodern sense, one of divinity but also one of spirit. With the Enlightenment, ‘spirit’ disconnected itself from the divine, became ‘objective’, as it were, and whether dialectical in nature or more simply existential, the one thing it no longer was, was essential;  spirit had become its own deep deontology.

            Now however this may strike us, one day as liberating, the next, alienating, and either way, certainly as a foreground to our favorite modernist expression, that of ‘freedom’, the deontology of morality did little enough to thenceforth favor ethics as any kind of ‘in itself’. Ethics, in our day, is more often thought of in the context of business, the white collar professions, medicine, or the law. We do not regularly hear of ethics as a stand-alone discourse, and when I tell people that I am an ‘ethicist’, or that is one of my philosophical areas of study, they always ask, ‘do you mean professional ethics or business ethics or…’ and so on. It is clear enough that ethics, recently divorced from morality, has accomplished what Aristotle began only through the sleight of hand of popular language in use. And while morality is itself shunned as both dreadfully old-fashioned as well as avoided since it is perceived as a prime candidate for interpersonal conflict, ethics has almost vanished entirely from the ‘open space of the public’. And if one gets a bemused response to being an ‘ethicist’, just think of how people might react if one introduced oneself as a ‘moralist’!

            The foregoing should not be seen as a digression. Just as personal experience does not in itself comprehend the world, the actions based upon each of our individuated experiences cannot in fact construct an ethics, let alone a morality. In our day, the quest for principles is either a mirror for the ventures in technique and technology which seek indefinite perfection – research in stem cells, in artificial intelligence, in extraterrestrial contact, in cybernetics or cyber-organicity including portable or downloadable-uploadable consciousness – or it is simply another one of the same type. The moral objection to each and any of these is that they are the latter-day Babel, and can thus only be the products of an arrogant but still mortal mind which seeks to be as a God already and always is. One could ask the question, in return, ‘are moral objections always in themselves moral?’ but this would take us beyond the scope of this brief commentary. Instead, though not in lieu of, let me suggest that meta-ethics as framed by analytic thought is fraught with a problem similar in likeness to that of making something perfect, or at least, superior to what it had been. One, we are not sure if morality is in fact superior to ethics: the timeless quality of moral principles is obviated by history. History slays morality just as disbelief murders Godhead. We know from both our personal experience and our more worldly discourses thereof, that what is good for one goose is not necessarily good for the next, let alone the ganders, diverse in themselves.  Two, what is it about the character of ethical thought, and the witness of ethical action, that necessarily requires us to hitch it up to a more static system of principles? We have already stated that ethics is not about the random, and if we take our proverbial chances in the world each day, we do so with the prior knowledge that almost all others are very much aware of doing the same thing, and thus as a society we are alert to a too egregious over-acting, and that of all kinds. Durkheim’s sense of the source of morality again comes to the fore: here, morality is understood as a working resource which expresses its historical essence through the action of ethics. As such, there is nothing to be gained by esteeming morality for its own sake or even contrasting it with the discourse of ethics in a manner that exalts its status.

            The virtuous must be decided not by a grounding, but rather on the grounds of all that which is at first needful of some kind of adjustment. How we access the frames by which we make ethical decisions is certainly of interest, but I suspect that most people do not refer to principles in so doing. Instead, they rely on what has worked for them in the past, their ‘previous prejudices’, which can appear to them as if they were a set of principles in spite of what we have just observed about the essential parochiality of personal experience. In a word, prejudice is not principle. Certainly, morality attempts, and mostly in good faith I imagine, to overcome the individuated quality of merely biographical self-understanding. All the more so is it not present to mind when we act. It is not that morality is utterly moribund, a relic alongside other ontotheological constructs fit only for the museum of thought and never for the world as it is, but we would do better to work on a more effective discourse concerning ethics and specifically, ethical action, with the only pseudo-ideal present perhaps the irruptive figure of the neighbor in mind. This anti-socius works against the moral order of society and thus momentarily stands outside of ethical discourse as well. But the action of the neighbor serves as an expression of the essence of our truly shared condition and as such, reminds us of the radical authenticity that must be present in order for ethics to have any reality at all.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 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.

Writing as a Vocation

Writing as a Vocation (a personalist accounting II)

            I never imagined I would become a writer. Even after my twentieth book was published, I thought of myself as an educator, a professor, and a pedagogue, but not a writer. I was simply a thinker who happened to enjoy writing. After I had finished with my administrative role and found that the vast majority of time had been taken up with its duties, divers and sundry as they were, the sheer amount of freed-up time lent itself to that very imagination. A well-known Canadian novelist was my first victim. His delicate indelicacy, ‘its quite a bit better than I thought it was going to be’, encouraged me to take at least the idea of writing more seriously. Almost forty books later, I have thought of myself as both a thinker and a writer now for some years. But what does it actually mean to be a writer? What does it mean to write?

            Writing as a means of communication:

            Writing is the greatest legacy of the first agrarian period. Other aspects of culture and civilization bequeathed to us from that antique epoch include mass warfare, caste slavery, and steep social hierarchies, as well as abstracted religious systems and gender inequality, all quite dubious historical gifts. Even monumental architecture might be seen as something of an unnecessary luxury. But the ability to record one’s thoughts, or simply describe the facts at hand, has made humanity a much more conscious, as well as self-conscious, species than it ever would have become without it. The first two ‘genres’ of written text exemplify the contrast between the senses and the imagination. The former is expressed as records of warehouse holdings, in the earliest of cuneiform, the latter, in the great mythic narratives, such as Gilgamesh, which orally is far older than even its first recorded rendition. Myth and fact divided the mind of antiquity and they are with us still, though both in somewhat muted form. The mythic has been personalized in a sense beyond belief, which in fact must be shared as part of culture to be truly authentic to itself. Fact has become a signpost for the absence of imagination, which is both ironic and ultimately impoverished. Throughout their conjoined career, myth and fact, fantasy and reality, continue to attract us in spite of their now stilted quality.

            They are able to do so because they continue to communicate things which are of the essence to our kind. On the one hand, writing allows one person to share their vision with another, no matter how outlandish are its contents or premises. With it written down, any reader can judge for themselves whether or not to take it with a pinch of salt or a drop of strychnine. We are able to read of distant places, exotic sources, crazed witness and unexpected encounter. We no longer need to presume it is some version of ‘Livingstone’ whom we meet in the heart of darkness or elsewhere, nor do we presume upon ourselves that we are always and utterly sane if only we manage to shun the irreal or the irruptive. On the other hand, the entire cosmic order is made more accessible to each of us through writing. These need not be the facts of a Gradgrind or for that matter, a Tyler, and the fact that one is, fortunately, a fictional educator and the other, perhaps regrettably, was not, impinges not a jot upon the reader’s sensibilities. Our question immediately becomes, ‘is this fact of merit, does it possess any value other than its descriptive presence?’. The judgment we carry into fiction is not entirely distinct from that which we carry unto fact.

            And it is writing that gives us this more sophisticated grace. We can discriminate between reality and fantasy after all, if only more of us would do so in our own time. Writing is both the stringent gatekeeper of any who would sully fact with fiction, but as well, and sometimes in direct contrast to this function, writing is also the means by which fact merges into fiction, and something of the fictional, in its ludic veridicity, appeals to us as if it were the thing itself. Writing represences the world as it is, and it makes present to us other possible worlds. In doing so, we find ourselves in the possession of a naked sword, visionary and keen, which, in a singular cut, can tear away the veils we tend to place over both our social normativity and our global inequity the both. At every level, from the most personal to the utterly dispassionate, writing reveals our truths to ourselves. Been molested? Write about it; let everyone know. Free others to communicate and come together to halt injustice. Fallen in love? Tell us all about it, for we too have such yearnings. Allow us to dream together in a waking state, overly conscious of our singularity, overtly impassioned by our desire for community. An undiscovered world awaits all readers of both astronomy and history, fantasy and science fiction. In a sense, writing does not discriminate such fields so distinctly as does discourse, and this is one of the chief differences between writing in that Derridean sense and the ‘tracing’ of nature through language in that Saussurean.

            Either way, writing as a means of communication remains its primary role in culture, whether or not the intention of the author recurs in their works, and without respect to the reader’s own intentions, whether it is to be simply entertained, informed, or enlightened. To each her own epiphany, one might respond to the text in hand, and from each their own experience. For writing has one further sidereal quality; that it becomes part of the reader’s world and his experiences thereof and therein, forgetting its ‘original’ source-point and reaching over any differences in biography and even history that once lay between writer and reader. In this, writing cannot in itself ever be parochial. For we living beings, this status provides for us an egress from our own rather sheltered perspectives and oft-shuttered imaginations.

            Writing as a personal experience:

            Non-fiction writing is an exercise in waking from what Schutz has framed as the ‘wide-awake consciousness’. This may at first seem redundant: how does one awake from the already waking life? Social reality provides for us a seldom penetrable insulation of norms, rituals, symbolic forms, and abstract beliefs within which no thought is necessary. As long as I run on my cultural and historical rails I need not blink at the world. But upon writing about this oft otherwise mute witness, I am compelled to reflect upon my sense of that same world, and what had been predictable and routine becomes much more experiential and even beckons an incipient adventure. Writing about the world as it is, insofar as each one of us can grasp it, is to awake from the day-to-day of the waking life. It is to simply become conscious, rather than to ‘raise consciousness’, for consciousness is always already with us and we are consciousness embodied. This awakening is also not a specific moral direct, such as ‘becoming woke’ or even ‘waking up’. It is a phenomenological disposition that pauses when it encounters the ‘of course’ statements associated with any automatic, or even automated, defense of society in the majority view. This is the hallmark of non-fiction: that it at once describes how things actually are and asks the reader to reflect upon, and question after, such truths. Non-fiction explicates to us that things are not quite as they seem to be, without suggesting how such things might be or might have been in the same way that fiction does.

            By contrast, fiction is thus less limited by the world. It may present different worlds, more or less plausible, and thence judged in terms of how recognizable to the unthought norms of the day they may be. If non-fiction writing awakens us to the subtext of life and living-on, writing fiction is to experience a waking dream. When we read the fiction of others, we note that our own perceptions are enlarged, but not in reference to the world per se, but rather to our own respective psyches. That the collective unconscious of humanity may also prove to be within our reach, at least once in a while, is testament to the function of the mythic as it plays within a reality itself bereft of myth. The latitude of interpretation associated with reading fiction is also wider than that of non-fiction, as readers may feel more free to bring their own experience into the text. Similarly, writing fiction sources itself in the author’s own experience, and those experiences which have been related to him by others he has known, sometimes intimately, sometimes vicariously. A commonplace projective trope thus begins with such rhetorical questions, ‘what if I had known her better?’, or, ‘what if we had never met?” and the like. In fiction, we are able to step outside of the facts at hand and imagine something else, indeed, almost anything else. This is why the creative character of fiction cannot be entirely divorced from the ‘discoverable’ sensibility associated with facts. If it is, then the world would lose its historical essence and humanity would be forever stunted in its species-maturity.

            My own experience with writing has fully participated in both major realms. For myself, scholarly non-fiction is shot through with the dialectic, as is appropriate for a hermeneutic phenomenologist. My more general non-fiction works are attempts to communicate difficult analyses to literate lay-people no matter their own backgrounds. It is the latter which is much more challenging for the writer to accomplish with any aplomb, and my originally mediocre assays have, over the years, given way to more modest, and thus more effective, offerings. At the same time, I take some satisfaction in making nominal contributions to aesthetics, ethics, education, and psychology, all emanating from my philosophical base. It would be past vain to enumerate such titles, but two examples, from both ends of the writerly spectrum, so far stand out: Aesthetic Subjectivity: glimpsing the shared soul (2011), is my major statement about art and its attendant discourses. The title is mine, the subtitle, the publisher’s, denoting a sudden and apt insight on their part. This book received a number of interdisciplinary reviews and was an unqualified success. But scholarly books are, by definition, elusive, and this work is now sadly out of print. In contrast, The Penumbra of Personhood: ‘anti-humanism’ reconsidered (2020),was a nightmare to write and no doubt the worse to read. I vowed to never write another large-scale scholarly work and to this day I have not, though I am planning one for 2024 in spite of this cherished interregnum. ‘Penumbra’ nearly finished me as a non-fiction writer, and was a reminder of how the vocation of writing can take over one’s life, sacrificing it in the service of the almighty text.

            As a belated writer of fiction, I have experienced similar distensions of ability and result. I am, first of all, sometimes taken aback by my waking dreams and how certain aspects of my unconscious life have found their way on to the page for all to peruse. Do I really have a penchant for grotesque violence? Have I never moved beyond adolescence in my desires? Though many would agree, life lived as an adult can be frustrating and sometimes even the coach of despair, but even so, at the end of any reads, I would hope no one would wish a life like any of my characters have been given and thus have had to live out. And just as art and life remain distinct, where there is no art one can yet suggest there is also a distinctive absence of life. So my fiction has within it a semblance of both at once. Since for the most part I write agenda fiction, by definition it cannot be art, no matter what kind of literary sophistication it may be said to have, and I make no claims to this regard. I write verse, not poetry, and I write books, not novels. I have never considered myself to be, or to yet become, either a poet or a novelist, but I have penned seventeen novels nonetheless, along with a novella, two short story collections, and an arc of folktales. This last, Raven Today, has been called my most ‘beautiful’ work by readers apparently in the know, and perhaps amusingly, is the only work of fiction I have produced which contains no bad language.        

            As with the non-fiction, I may be forgiven in citing just two books here. About the Others was my first adult mainstream title, and this failed art novel was meant as a tribute to my favorite author, H.G. Wells, who himself had quite a number of them. It has some autobiographical elements, and as such is the only work of fiction I have written that relies on what is this commonplace source material. But if my first mainline attempt was much-flawed, if still a tolerable page-turner, my second was, in my own view, perfect. That The Understudies remains unpublished reminds the author that his view of perfection may not at all be understood by others. This too is the common lot for writers of all sorts, and one must inhale that displeasing atmosphere as best one can, expelling it in new directions and perhaps relieving oneself of this or that delusion in the process. Writing fiction is about the literary sleight of hand, so to move from a pleasant illusion to a sometimes unsavory disillusion reworks the story from the outside in. And of course there is a world of difference between writing and publishing, especially in the fiction industry where, because of at least the potential for profit – unlike, and especially, scholarly works – editors and presses become agitated if ‘fit’ for catalogue is at all transgressed.

            Writing fiction is not a thankless vocation. Its task is to step into worlds hitherto unknown and uncharted, but its gift is that you are the one who becomes the first to know, the first to map, and these new worlds come to love you as much as you have given them the reciprocal gift of life.

            Writing as a Discursive Activity:

            All writers contribute to discourse, the conversation of the history of consciousness. If ‘dialogue is what we are’, as Gadamer has declared, discourse is that dialogue written down, a record of thought itself, and not merely thoughts, which any person may have, and in the most fleeting of fashions. Discourses come in many forms, and one need not be dismayed if philosophy is not on one’s writerly menu. Few read it, for one, and fewer understand it. And though it is not economics, the ‘dismal science’, philosophical discourse is often discouraging, as it leaves nothing sacred and unmasks even the sweetest of sentiment for what it may be or contain within. It is, in a word, not for the faint of heart, and if one has any hint of the Pollyanna, it will leave that fake Sophia naked and utterly at risk for her estranged sister’s truth.

            Given this, it is no holiday to write either. Perhaps it is this slough-filled pilgrimage which is the truer source of the action in my fictional works! I do find myself alternating between non-fiction and fiction, sometimes writing both at once, as I am currently doing. But discourse is immune to authorial sentiment. And if the author is himself dead, as Barthes famously reminded us, perhaps the writer lives yet. I have stated that we today dwell in the period of the afterlife of God, so it is not a stretch to imagine as well an afterlife of the author as a kind of remanential writer. This figure is itself discursive, and is made up, if you will, of all those who continue to author works in spite of that particular literary function being surpassed or superceded. That there is no autograph which can contain the text, that there can be no signature which vouchsafes it, is, even so, not to say that the reader can do more than rewrite the read in the light of her own experience and sensibilities. Penetrating non-fiction, as well as reflective fiction, in fact disallows complacency of any kind on the part of the reader, and tells us instead that discourse is alive and well, fully matriculated from its birth, divine or no, and fully accepting, and acting upon, its birthright.

            Hence writing is to experience the presence of discourse in one’s life. It is creative, in its guise as fictional, constructive as factual, but either way, it remains a wholly discursive act. That I became a writer tells me in turn that the vocation of writing adopted me as its own child, as it has done for countless others and, one would hope, will continue to do as long as there exists a human consciousness worthy of its precious record.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Teaching as a Vocation

Teaching as a Vocation (a personalist accounting)

            Sometimes those who can do, also teach. And teaching is also a doing, at least of sorts. Shaw’s perhaps unknowing indictment is well taken, however, for the vast majority of what passes for teaching in our contemporary systems, at whatever level, is tantamount to mass regurgitation and within the framework of patent unthought. This is what needs be for any social system to reproduce itself without too many mutations, not unlike the patterns our genetic proteins must follow. At the same time, the world does not wait for us, nor any systemic congery we have constructed for ourselves. So, within the mass, there must always be the mutant, as it were, the catalyst for a transformation of thinking and even of human experience itself, so that reproduction is itself given new life. And those who feel that assignation, who treat teaching in the traditional sense of vocation, are perhaps more apt to become those agents of necessary change. What follows is a brief narrative of both pedagogy as a discourse and of my own experience becoming both a pedagogue and an education theorist.

            Teaching as an Vocational Experience:

            Though I taught my first few classes as a graduate assistant in the Winter Term of 1989, I only became a sessional instructor five years later. Five years after that, I was awarded my first tenure stream professorial position, and for some twenty years occupied this perch in various units and in three universities, ending my career after a five-year chairpersonship of a liberal arts department. A quarter-century in the university classroom, with more than 140 courses taught over that time, and my experience was one of some irony. At the beginning, I felt the calling of teaching as an authentic assignation, but by the end, I felt nothing of the sort. Does the saint recuse himself from his hagiographic similitude? Does the pilgrim quit his progress? Or for that matter, does the dictator ever simply step down? Clearly, one’s personal sense of what one must do can shift over time. My friends have suggested that I teach still, just in different and distanciated venues, sometimes digitally, other times informally, and I have done various writing workshops and series over the past few years, though now even these are fading memories. I have not been inside a bona fide classroom in over eight years.

            As vocations go, teaching has many rewards, both in the light and, to be discussed below, in the shadows as well. But teaching presumes that one can also learn from one’s students, alter one’s pedagogic trajectory to fit their needs, or have at least the nerve, if not the outright gall, to suggest to them that they do not know their needs, or are only partially conscious thereof. This may seem rash, but any vocation demands also vision. The saint does not brook debate regarding ideal action in the world, and indeed seeks to make mere living action into transhistorical act. The pilgrim will not be detoured from her goal, however afar, and in turn will not be deterred from pursuing it by all means, even if such sometimes stray into the unmentionable. The dictator’s Diktat is indeed generally unfit to print, but nevertheless, it commends itself with utmost consistency to the principle of vocation. Teaching, much less glamorous than any of these, is nonetheless safer, and to the point of complacency. The goal of university teaching is to be, speaking of ideals, open-ended, improvisatory, iconoclastic, critical. Its actual character tends toward the routine, even the otiose, as evidenced by my own professors, trained as they were in mid-century, and many by canonical figures. By the time I possessed the terminal degree from a world top-40 institution, I was but once removed from the likes of Talcott Parsons – I possess to this day many of his office files in which he stored his accumulation of journal articles, as well as the papers themselves – Erving Goffman, Claude Levi-Strauss, Raymond Firth, Victor Turner, Virginia Oleson, as well as others, including the great Dorothy Smith. With this last I had the privilege of dialogue much later in my career, when I myself was nominally worthy thereof. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, their elite training in the human sciences, my own professors’ course outlines were sometimes forty years backdated, sometimes even non-existent, for these were the days when university administrations actually kept their distance from the pedagogic scene.

            I had numerous teachers of merit, but by far the most important was no less than Dorothy Heathcote, the legendary drama pedagogue, by whom I was taught firsthand in the summer of 1980 when I was but fourteen. It was a transformational experience, that summer festival workshops series, with same-aged peers and the most brilliant pedagogue for youth I have ever known. It was she who told me that I had the potential to teach, and she who took the first step with me and showed me a path upon which that potential could evolve into a practice. For many years as a professor in my own right, I attempted to conjure for my students that same sidereal realm in which she moved so effortlessly. Heathcote was compassionate, fearless, unbounded, and quick on her feet. She had about her an aura of gentle invincibility; this is the only manner of description that comes to mind when I think of her. She showed me that the best pedagogue did not so much live and die by her students’ aptitudes or abilities, but rather helped that student understand the very meaning of life and death in its relation to experience, to knowledge, and to education.

            My longest-lasting teacher, and also my most personal, has always been my sister, a five decade veteran of the public schools, in which she occupied almost every role imaginable, from itinerant music teacher to principle, through drama director and superintendent’s office curriculum planner. That she continues apace today, working as the field supervisor in teacher training for her regional university, attests to the truer sense of vocation in pedagogy which is no longer present for myself. One’s experience of teaching as a vocation includes moments of ethical fulfillment – the most commonplace is when a student relates how you have transformed their life and given them a keen drive to succeed or at the very least a hope and an aspiration to be more than they had been before – as well as a consistent sense of existential contentment. No one I know has had more of these future-oriented moments than has my sister, and every one well-earned.

            That I have a number of life-long friendships that began in the classroom is a lasting blessing. That I met the young woman who was to become my future wife in the classroom strikes me as a kind of miracle. The many thousands of students, most of them marginal and many the first-time college attempts in their respective families, have of course come and gone. Those once known fairly intimately I now know nothing of. Those who were obstreperous have long been forgotten. And all this is as it should be, for another principle of the vocation is its not quite diffident, but indeed quite dispassionate, stance and instantiation of itself. Assignation is itself impersonal, for whatever the source of such, be it the Fates or the Furies or both, could have chosen anyone in the end. A vocation is the result of a Valkyric light, shone upon the fragile being merely in the world and making him of that selfsame world.

            Teaching as a Fix, and as a Pimp

            But teaching as a vocation has its shadow side. If there is magic in it, there is also present sorcery. For myself, I was an attention-seeker, and the fact that I could transfix large audiences, keeping them on the edge of their collective seats for up to 90 minutes, only fuelled the sense that I was, as an individual, more than my vocation would, or should, admit. My narcissism could be rationalized away as being in the service of good product, and clever production. If the classroom experience with Professor Loewen was a commodity worth the price, even in steeply ascending university tuitions, I became, in that space, my own fetish object. I bathed in the applause, and I glowed in the admiration of people far too young to make any worthwhile distinctions of mature character. I came to need the fix, captivating, enervating, and especially offending cohorts of students, getting younger and younger as I myself aged. At present, long outside of such contexts, I have to police myself yet regarding the motives for my more critical work. That I am not always entirely successful any readership will attest. The fact that my course evaluations bore no signs of my self-interest was remarkable but also an important relief. One could say, ‘whatever it takes to get up there and kill it’, but as an ethicist, I maintain my doubts. Teaching as a vocation might cater to the fix, but it does not admit the fixation.

            Nor does it the lust. I was a member of what I think, and hope, to be the final generation of academic gigolos. A young male professor, the campus menace and, at least in my gendered druthers, the patent nemesis of the coed. What I can say, is that I never cheated on any one of them, and that they were all adults. That I even fell in love with three of those otherwise uncounted might also be worth something. And of course, my wife of more than two decades rose to the very apex of this otherwise somewhat sordid pyramid scheme cum bedroom farce. The teaching vocation cast as a pimp is unique to the university, or at least one would hope that it is, and as such it places a more stringent ethical demand upon the advanced pedagogue. Institutions have belatedly framed policy surrounding ‘campus romance’ as it is still sometimes sentimentally referred to, as if this were still 1950 or so, and I was witness to these changes, for such policies were non-existent not only when I was myself a student but also for about a third of my professional career. Romance or no, intimate liaisons with one’s own students is not recommended, and I say that as perhaps one of the very least prudish persons on the planet. Inevitably, one’s emotions, or worse, one’s desires, obviate the nobility of the pedagogic plane. It is not that all students must be ‘treated the same’, as if they are but lab rats, but rather that each student must be given their ownmost care and concernfulness, that which is most apt for their current condition, and most astute regarding their current abilities. Beyond this, the tables of desire can be easily turned. I was myself stalked no less than five times, and those represent the cases of which I was aware. By four women, one man, and fortunately the fellow involved was absolutely non-threatening and only one of the young women was, at least to me who is hardly GQ, unattractive. Even so, desire is a game that two can play, further obfuscating both the discourse and dialogue which must be present in authentic teaching.

            Teaching as a Discursive Activity:

            And speaking of which, late in my teaching career I somewhat randomly became an educational theorist. I have now written two books and a number of articles in the field, and I was both astonished and honored that my 2012 book has been used in multiple programs for curricular and pedagogic renewal. For me, the study of teaching became almost as important as teaching itself, and I was able to, as a more mature pedagogue, bring this work into the classroom, thus making it more historically conscious of itself, and allowing students to begin to claim a sense of the wider contexts within which teaching both functioned as a critical discourse as well as its very opposite. My enduring idols of modern education are John Dewey and William James, two pillars of pragmatism but more than this, two transcendental teachers and very much public figures. The present work in digital media I have undertaken with my corporate co-founder and business partner, Avinash Pillay, a true genius of the new age and someone who himself has all the makings of an effective pedagogue, remain profoundly in debt to Dewey and James, and their own attempts at disseminating more widely the history of ideas and the philosophy of consciousness entire, halting and of course technically limited as they were in their own time.

            To read what other teachers have to say about teaching is kindred with reading writers writing about writing, but more on that in a companion piece. Suffice to say that experience is both a great teacher in itself, but also, in its own shadowy form, a purveyor of bias, even bigotry. ‘I know how to do this and I don’t need to learn anything new about it’ might well be the least of it, regarding the poor attitudes the veteran teacher can accumulate. More subtle, and thus more dangerous, is the evolving sense that I can master any classroom ‘situation’, and that I am the master of any student. That I am unassailable not only in my opinions, but also in my very presence. That I, in a word, have moved beyond the need to risk myself.

            But in fact, within authentic dialogue, there is not only present the dialectic, which is objective without being objectificatory, but also, at a personal and a subjective ‘level’, a ‘diacritic’ function which entails that participants willingly risk not merely their beliefs but their entire manner of being; the way they have lived until this moment. The teacher is a mere resource and more experienced participant in the realm of dialogue. It is an intensely hermeneutic realm, and what I mean by this is simply that it entails translation, interpretation, and interaction unframed by specific discursive tropes. I have written at length about ‘hermeneutic pedagogy’, so suffice to state here that if either student or teacher is unwilling or unable to place one’s very reason for being on the pedagogic table, the results emanating from any lesser classroom or other context will tend toward the merely reproductive. This is not a case of the professor giving over his authority to his students, or even the by now cliché sense that classrooms should be ‘student-centered’. Even learning centered classrooms, in contrast to teaching centered say, still does not reach the apogee of authenticity in dialogue. Of course, the standards of intimacy which can be tractioned in various classes and courses must be utterly aware of the students’ own presence and their willingness to risk themselves. But I have always pushed my students to expand not only their perspective in relation to history and thought itself, but with regard to their own capabilities. I have encouraged them to ask any question, no matter how impolitic or unfashionable, and that they may speak to any topic, if only to express their incomplete knowledge, which is in turn a more profound expression of our incomplete beings, to be finished only in mine ownmost death. This concept of incompleteness is of the utmost in a serious pedagogy, for it reminds young people that no matter the life-phase or one’s ‘amount’ of experience both personal and cultural, that we are, ideally, always learning, and that the new is only what fully overturns and overcomes what we once thought we knew.

            Teaching the Vocation of Teaching:

            Lastly, I would like to add a few lines about how one’s sense of vocation in general is itself transformed by the experience of teaching.

            A vocation begins with wide eyes and bright imaginings. It resonates with childlike wonder and perhaps also even a smidgeon of childish anticipation, as if each new classroom were an unopened birthday gift of unknown proportion and value. It should carry one through many other vicissitudes of a life, its own exiguous thread enduring any strain, suffering any insult, and shrugging away any care. And this personal function may last the entire life course, even if its objective content and very character be altered, as it has been for myself. Teaching as a vocation should also stand aloof to both bribe and blackmail, for it should fear no evil other than being wary of that within the shrouds of its own shadows. Over time, one’s own sense of what one is doing alters its vantage point, pointing away from imminent joy and as well pleasure eminent, and toward the more practiced sensibility of ‘Am I doing this well, what can be better, how have my students changed over time, what now does the world ask of all of us?’ and other like queries ongoing. One progresses from painstakingly constructing course outlines, living and dying by every course evaluation, memorizing entire lectures and the like, to being able to gain the larger pattern and paint the more complete picture, of being able to walk into any classroom absolutely cold and simply flick on the killswitch, and of not being overly concerned about either the latest pretty face or the most recent and in fact non-teachable failure, both of which will ere be present as long as one remains an active teacher. These changes represent to oneself both a personal evolution as well as one discursive and dialogic.

            A vocation ends simply when one decides to end one’s relationship with it. Its presence then become a kind of remanant, but a good-matured one and one not given to haunting either our incomplete dreams or our doubts about what we in fact have accomplished, however distant and dated such may be. When I left teaching I was momentarily lost for purpose in action, but I was never alone, for the experience of assignation is fully portable across any specific series of vocations, and this by itself is perhaps the most profound thing one learns by having had one in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in education, ethics, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Was ist Entzauberung?

Was ist Entzauberung? (What is ‘Disenchantment’?)

            One of Max Weber’s most famous statements declares that modernity’s chief experiential hallmark is its disenchantedness. This is a state of being which differs in essential ways from its predecessors, both historical and prehistorical. The ‘disenchantment of the world’ is a process by which the magical quality of a worldview in itself is transformed, as if the mystical transmutations touted by alchemy had been simply reversed. This reversal is, however, only the surface tension atop the fluids of contrasting discourses, for a mere reversal connotes a retreat, even a reversion. For Weber, the relationship between outlook and worldview is personalized in modernity, most especially in religion. It is Protestantism specifically that carries the vanguard of this personalization, even as the rest of the world around it became more depersonalized. At first, one would imagine that it is this latter effect alone which contributes to disenchantment, but in fact it is both, and in tandem. One the one hand, the world takes on an anonymous hue, while the personal life begins to craft its own enchantedness. From personal fable to even the ‘dreaded hobby’, as Adorno referred to it, in our time it is up to the individual not only to construct his personhood, but to provide herself with meaningfulness.

            Meaning in itself has always been the purview of culture, not person. In premodern social contexts, the argument concerning Entzauberung suggests that there was no other level or form associated with fulfillment, in part because the very concept of the individuated person had not completely gelled. For premoderns, Augustinian subjectivity, known throughout by Godhead and housed in a being shot through with God Himself as imago dei, was perhaps the most radical form of individuation. Ours was a magical vessel set upon the surface of equally magical depths, the ‘ocean of being’, as Peter Gabriel, for one, might image. But meaningfulness was not a distinct character of that being, or possession thereof and therein. To understand something was to know its relation to creation, and although the ‘great chain of being’ proved to be a phrase and a conception portable to modernity – evolution does not obviate creation, but merely makes it more prescient of its outcomes – its premodern caste was made manifest through the divine autograph, in what Foucault has referred to as the ‘prose of the world’.

            Meaning was thus the world in its presence, meaningfulness was the ‘why’ of that world; its purpose and its intent, to be revealed upon the apocalypse. Neither could be said to be remotely personal, and even insofar as one’s character and actions, one’s ‘faith and works’ would determine, if not predetermine, one’s ultimate fate in the revelatory soteriology of a religion of grace, forgiveness and salvation were still to be earned. This edge of the new ethics grew increasingly sharp with the Reformation; from now on, the person as an individual was to be responsible for their own faith. Thus the personalization of religion could proceed apace, while at the same time, the world was relieved of its enchanted quality. No longer could the hand of God be read off that world as signage, symbolic or hermeneutic. Instead, we moderns place a more rational faith in systems of signs themselves, and are skeptical of the symbolic in all of its remaining moments. And whether these residues are remanential only is an open question, for those who read too much into the world could be diagnosed as merely schizo-affective rather than as visionary.

            If we rewind to the point of departure, the context wherein there was instantiated a metaphysical change, definitions of meaning and meaningfulness following along afterward, what can be observed is a conflation between human institution and Godhead, between longevity and infinity, and between luxury and divinity. The Roman church had, over a millennia, taken upon itself the responsibility for grace, while in so doing, granted itself a monopoly upon same. That one would object to this, at least in Western Europe, was generally unimaginable, though ‘folk Catholicisms’ existed long before the era of conquest. We see these phenomena specifically in Scandinavia and in Iberia, and there is yet some question as to how much of the pre-Columbian syncretisms of Catholicism were homegrown in Meso-American and elsewhere, and how much were in fact simply imported directly from the Iberian peninsula having been extant there for some centuries, even if driven into discreet enclaves by the Moorish presence. However this may have been, the model for later personalization does not arrive abruptly in 1517 alone. Even if there was but one God, he had many arrows in His quiver. The expansive sensibilities of the religious manifests of second stage Agrarian metaphysics; Buddhism, Christianity, Islam – the worldviews that introduced ethics to the world and as well, personhood – turned outward only when their once interiors began to foment dissent. It is not an historical coincidence that Europe, for one, sought the rest of the world at the same moment as the schism in belief was made official and became institutional. A religion must have believers in order to survive. Losing half of Europe meant that new franchises needed to be established. A competition between Catholic and Protestant imperialisms thus ensued, and within this, the syncretistic phenomenon were repeated, now on a global scale.

            But there is a deeper reason at work here, and that is: a structural division in any worldview shows not only a loss of faith in the reigning institution of religion, but also a change of heart regarding the source of its beliefs. If the church were part of the world alone, that same world held within it contrasting signatories, human and divine, which thence gives forth the diabolic in their own competing claims. What once was magic might be turned to sorcery. What once was sidereal may in fact be merely real. In religion do we find the first consideration, in science, the second. The church was once the rampart of magic alone, the priest the latter-day magician. This vehicular alchemy was pronounced first by Moses himself, trained in Egyptian magic by the pyramidal priesthood, later outmatching it, providing the grounds for the once Akhenatonites now Hebrews to journey to a new homeland. By the late Middle Ages, however, magic had already given in to the manipulation associated with the sorcerer who, having always been an outsider, sought through his superior use of enchantedness, to gain purchase within official quarters, just as Satan’s mission was to regain Heaven and reorder it to his own less scrupulous affairs. In part, we see the personalization of magic in the troubador’s poetic discourse, the idea of courtly love and personal romance, rather than that merely personified in antique allegorical figures. The ‘love potion’ motif also begins here, and was it not fitting that it was  French fashion revolutionary who resuscitated this ‘scent-sibility’ in Qabalistically numbered alchemical parfums.

            If sorcery could have been seen as the proverbial ‘left hand of God’, His ‘darker materials’, and so on, by definition it could not occupy the lighted space of institutional, or institutionalized, being. Its fuller presence within the interior of grace could only lead to disenchantedness, which today is our common lot. We are very aware of the corruption of political institutions and organizations alike, the success of those who cheat not merely at games but somehow also at life, and the loopholes, legal or otherwise, which inhabit the detailed deviltries of policy and policing, of schools and schooling, of familiality and family as well as others. Some of us have reacted to this present context by instigating nostalgia in lieu of authentic magic, but this is a dead end, as Weber himself recognized. For the fin de siecle thinkers, only art could provide the outlet for a human being, otherwise historical through and through, to generate meaningfulness in the face of the abyssal void. This sense was particularly evident in Freud, and even he was unsure of art’s long-term ability to provide a niche of enchanted existence. If science has conquered much of the discursive territory religion used to rule, it is art that has proven to be a more essential iconoclast, since it has taken up the task of replacing divine grace itself with an aesthetic subjectivity which ‘glimpses the shared soul’.

            This oversoul has itself become humanized, just as our individual participation in it has become personalized. Attending a concert or taking in a gallery showing does not make us a community. Just as politics fails to unite us, modern aesthetics reaches into our consciousness in order to scandalize it in its too-complacent relationship with the normative. In that, it is deserving of all of our efforts, but at the same time, unless this critical stance is itself able to construct something meaningfully novel and generative of community in the face of anonymous and rationalized relationships, however ‘interpersonal’ or even intimate they may be, then we are at an historical loss whose absence of meaning may well be subject to latter-day sorcery. And if politics may be safely divorced from morality, it cannot be so from ethics. Correspondingly, belief may be separated from aesthetics proper, but it cannot lose the quality of enchantedness now primarily associated with art. And while art is still not life as lived, it is nevertheless life in one of its ideal formulations; that which transcends the moment and thus reveals its history.

            So, while Entzauberung has been the default of modern culture for some centuries, it is equally clear that sorcery, the darker magic of manipulation, has survived, and even flourished, the more disenchanted we become. For in Weber’s argument there is a subtext: the world’s loss of magical quality begins with our disenchantedness at its worldly magus; that is, we ourselves. We doubt our ability to make meaningful remaining meanings because we are taught nothing of the hermeneutic in our education. ‘Interpretation’ is rather something to be avoided, we claim, because all it does is foster conflict. Yet since there cannot be, in the work of existence, one true meaning shared by all, a reactionary sectarianism promotes an anti-hermeneutic soteriology. But it is hardly the sole instance of Babel to this regard. Governments self-promote an official truth, the schools a pedagogic one, the family one based on personal loyalty to status-authority alone, and even science may be guilty of overstating its paradigms, noting that while its methods are open-ended and include interpretation, its results, once evidenced, are the less so. Science, as the historically favored child of religion, has never quite been able to rise above its original kinship to this regard.

            Even so, if it is art that engages us with otherwise scandalous, even evil, insights, exposing our moral hypocrisies and our ethical heresies alike, it is science which in turn reveals cosmic wonders seemingly as infinite as was the premodern idea of creation. And even if demographically it is the case that the vast majority of sectarians have been culturally divorced from both art and science and thus have had to cast round for meaning in the fearful undergrowth of human hope and dream, the more noble instantiations of modernity’s self-made freedoms are nevertheless available to all. That one must approach both art and science with the lingering overtones of magic and sorcery respectively, does contain a challenge to each of us as persons. We experience wonder now as an unsure sign of re-enchantment, in art and through science, but we must do so in the absence of a community which can itself agree on what meanings these wonders denote. In our uncertain certainty that we have at all a future, the will to life demands a magic that will overcome human finitude, and receives in turn only a sorcery which distends existence in various ways. To recognize our historical condition as one in which magic is itself effable and sorcery only nostalgic is to begin to separate disenchantment, which is of a world made into ratios and not necessarily understood rationally, and disenchantedness, which is not of the world at all, resting instead in the heart of the overly personalized meaning of an overtly rationalized human life.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, aesthetics, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Pandemic of Emic

The Pandemic of Emic (and the pathetic of etic?)

            Kenneth L. Pike’s massive 1954 opus in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics takes one of its cues from Roman Jakobson’s useful distinction between phonetics and phonemics. The former is the linguist’s scientific rendition of a language in question, the latter’s how it is actually spoken by the native. Shortening these terms to ‘etic’ and ‘emic’, Pike coined a duet of discursive diminutives that, over the course of a half a century, became standard fare across the disciplines. No doubt such success was beyond his original expectations. What he never would have suspected, however, was that the emic, which by definition was to be understood as non-discursive, would haul itself into serious discourse and of its own accord. But this is precisely what we have witnessed, especially in the 21st century, as a multi-generational fashion for vaulting social, and even mere personal, experience into objectificity has overtaken epistemology itself. In short, the native’s point of view has come of scientific age.

            Though the emic was a necessity in and to any ethnography – sometimes communicated by the so-called ‘key informant’, which in many a classic anthropological study from the colonial period, turned out to be the pith helmet’s only informant, and just as often, an entire village desired to speak; in such cases, the anthropologist realized he had discovered rifts within even the smallest scale societies – it was never considered, nor was it ever to be considered, the final word on how things ‘really were’. It is well known that none of us, as children of specific cultural and historical periods, can see the entirety of the forest no matter how minutely we see a few of its trees. The immediate implication here is, of course, that we lack the big picture, and this expresses itself with morbid delicacy in our geopolitics. By 1961, Edmund Leach was one of the first in-house critics of this kind of ethnography, wherein the emic was given center stage. Not only was it titillating, even thrilling, to listen to the ‘’wild’ voices describe their world and how they lived in it – Malinowski’s 1929 ‘The Sexual Life of Savages’ was a best seller in the interwar period – these varied valedictions valorized the average reader, who could see herself living this or that way, if only she could escape the bonds of her own stale stoicism. If Woolf epitomized this theme in her novels, the female prisoner of both society and her own soul the leitmotif of early literary feminism, then it was the ethnographer who directly competed with the novelist in alluding to the European’s bad conscience following the Great War, and along far more than just lines of gender and sexuality.

            A rakish and reckless wit might exclaim, ‘If the ‘queerest’ of queer theorists, if the ‘blackest’ of black scholars, only knew!’ The emic, well before it was even given a useful epithet, had begun its lengthy ascent to discursive dominance as soon as the earliest of ethnographers began to listen to it. Perhaps the first ‘moment’ in this careening anti-epistemological career occurred by the mid-19th century, in a footnote to a Bureau of American Ethnology publication in which an extended narrative taken from one indigenous fellow is disputed by another, the second man being reported simply as ‘Two Crows denies this’. Does he indeed.

            This is the entire problem with any emic point of view: it lacks the ability to self-verify. The novelist well knows that veridicity and verity are two quite different things. That is perhaps the hallmark of good fiction; that it isn’t real but it comes across as being so. Whether or not Woolf herself confused the two is as maybe, but certainly many of her acolytes over the succeeding century have quite happily done so. If one enlightened thing can be said about the colonial ethnographers, none of them were deluded into imagining that what the native said about anything could be taken as the truth entire. And when I say, anything, I mean anything at all. It was only with the advent of the fourth generation of anthropological studies that we find the emic and the etic beginning to bleed into one another, and thus what was once ethnography beginning to read more like a novel. Experiential immersion was the goal of these experimental texts, and as brilliantly expository as they are, they are nonetheless not representations of scientific observation. Not quite emic, neither etic, narratives such as the superb ‘Nine Dayak Nights’ by Geddes or Radin’s ‘Primitive Man as Philosopher’ contain much beauty and perspective alike. But while these persons, however ‘primitive’, can certainly be poets, sorcerers, even journalists, they cannot be scientists, let alone philosophers. None of us can be either of these, without the extensive training and worldly outlook that all traditional cultures notoriously lack.

            While anthropology had belatedly heard the call of emic-based book sales, some anthropologists, and in the case of Jung, even one or two psychologists and mythologists, had heard the call of the emic itself. ‘Going native’ is surely a cliché, once again more entertaining in the hands of a novelist than ever in an ethnographer herself, but within that moment of regression-conversion, there is tacit another element of the emic’s discursive ascent. While we can leave it to Peter Gabriel and other modern musical sorcerers and poets to celebrate Jung and the like, we ourselves must press on with distinguishing fact and fancy. In doing so, we discover that the heedless headlong hurry to place emicity and its prenatal perch, along with its attendant rustic logic of the log, atop contemporary ivory pillars, is actually based on the resentment the dominant discourse feels for itself. For back-dropping the pandemic of the emic is the pathetic of the etic.

            If the world of the native is parochial, never moving beyond its own limited horizons, the worldcraft of the etic is absent of humanity-as-it-is. By the mid-1960s, this had become self-evident, and Geertz was one of the leading figures in the attempt to construct a ‘middle-range theory’ of humankind. Still far too discursive to satisfy the provincial palette of the emic ‘voice’, a scant decade later we would witness the beginning of today’s penchant for ‘social location’, the much-vaunted marque of apparent authenticity in the human sciences. If Geddes were a Chanel, Patricia Hill Collins might be a Diane von Furstenberg, who staunchly maintains that ‘we women are stronger than men’, and such-like. At once we are told that social location cannot by itself generate discourse, while at the same time, in every such study, this is precisely what occurs. The emic is no longer merely only a means to an etic, it itself has become the etic. What this means for human understanding is tantamount to the attestation that science does not exist, only the ‘voices’ of individuals, limited and inexperienced as they are.

            Overlaid upon such voices is the chorus of vox humana emanating from the locational theorist. In a very real sense, this is little different from any colonial ethnography; it is only ‘post’ colonial because some local is now the anthropologist and she doesn’t wear a pith helmet proper but some recognizably native gear that somehow vouchsafes against her own parochiality. The indigenous anthropologist writing about his own culture is certainly interesting and presents a perhaps more-validating manner of retelling the emic than having to go through the foreign ethnographer, part court reporter part parish priest part dime novelist as he may have been, but it is no less biased and no more authentic. We say this because authenticity is not autobiography, not even biography. And social location studies in fact read more like distended autohagiographies than anything else, mimicking many, if not most, contemporary novels. This is the key: that we have forsaken the scholarly and ethical work necessary to distance ourselves from our own dreary druthers. The result is a social science that looks like Subaltern Salvation Army tracts and novels that read like diarrhetic diaries.

            Pike, and especially his genius teacher, Edward Sapir, would have been appalled, no doubt. Even so, the fault lies somewhere near their feet, just as Sapir’s own teacher, Boas, the person who essentially invented cultural anthropology, opened the discursive door perhaps a hair too far in also inventing the concept of cultural relativism. As a student of hermeneutics, I would be last person to argue that there is but one truth in the world, or even but one world in truth. What I do suggest, however, and this in the face all the varied voices of such worlds, is that we must not lose sight of the very point of self-study; it is to reveal the self’s misrecognitions and misunderstandings of itself, and not to revel in its own limitations, neither revolt against the history of consciousness as an objectifying force, nor to revile the three millennia tradition of insight, groping and gradual, into the essence of what makes humanity our shared lot, gift and task alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Is there a ‘Jewish Question’?

Is there a ‘Jewish Question’? (a god with a human interest)

            At first glance, Bauer’s 1843 thesis, in which the now notorious phrase of ‘the Jewish question’ is introduced to modernity, bears little difference from many other Enlightenment political analyses in that it declares that religious demands are by their very nature incompatible with, and thus inadmissible to, a secular state. Political emancipation can only occur if these pre-modern statuses conferred upon the social group in question are abandoned. None less than Marx and Engels were quick to critique this thesis in the following year, arguing instead that Bauer had failed to distinguish between political freedom and a more general human freedom, and that the secular state, far from being emancipatory, actually presupposed religion in its self-made ‘civil religion’, and that its demands were structurally no different than the demands of a deity, real or imagined. Indeed, since for these writers gods were but human projections, the state was actually far less free of an apparatus, since it has a material reality about it, even though its general conception is almost as abstract as that of Godhead itself.

            For Marx, both the question of God and that of human freedom through a political entity were false questions, and thus any specifically Jewish rendition of such a question was, at best, a red herring. Why single out a particular ethnic group in any case, as Bauer had done, when it came to unemancipated cultures enthralled to pre-modern moral demands? Even in our own day, there remain many such communities, some contrived, as in the popular usage of the term ‘cult’, and others traditional or at least, historical in scope and in pedigree. In fact, much of world conflict may be understood as an ongoing clash between loyalties to mysticism and the demands of rational discourses, though I would caution a too-heavy reliance upon this tension, as it often can overlay, either by default or by design, other more palpable stressors, such as access to resources, political power, and enfranchisement in modern institutional discourses, no more so than those of the applied sciences and thence their technical miracles.

            If Bauer’s thesis was more or less immediately dismissed as a Bourgeois fraud – similarly, the 1789 revolution in France was seen by Marx and Engels as a half-step towards human freedom; no secular state based upon the new French model could hope to deliver the more radical authenticity of freedom from the reduction of the species-being to its labor power under capital (this is a point that must be borne in mind in any discussion of Israel as a modern state populated with apparently emancipated Jewish citizens) – it is not otherwise clear how Marx advanced the question philosophically beyond the vague sense, at the time, that communism would at once clear the decks of both any ideas of God and such theo-political demands that religion made upon believers and the more worldly demand of wage-slavery itself. What is more certain, is that Bauer’s introduction of the phrase got stuck in a darker corner of European political discourse and was thence embarked on a criminal career.

            It could be seen as anti-Semitic to point to the Jews and suggest that they remained the epitome of moral backsliding, assuming that all other cultures and ethnic groups had rushed headlong into Enlightenment freedoms. This is hardly the case even today, when rather what we observe is a general regression of all cultures and classes into a nostalgic fantasy of premodernity, replete with the very demands Bauer and Marx agreed must be shed, with their essential difference being, as stated, that the latter saw this as only a first step and not an ethical terminus. Marx was himself Jewish of course, though he, like Freud after him, had perhaps ironically ‘heeded’ the advice Wagner had given to his virtuoso musicians, a cadre of cultured elites who had developed a great, and for them, emancipatory, faith in the composer’s art and even his politics, which too were anti-Semitic, and had thus ‘shed their Jewishness’. It is always somewhat awry to accuse someone of Jewish descent of anti-Semitism, and yet one is always capable of writing and working against one’s own culture. And it is this point, at this moment, that we are made more aware of the possibility that there could be an authentically Jewish question after all.

            I think that there is, and it would be: Is it possible that there could exist a God with a human interest? There were many mascot gods in the Near East and Levant at the time the Hebrews occupied a semi-nomadic subsistence which included warfare with neighboring groups. Weber argues that the ancient Hebrews were both a ‘pariah’ people and a guest people. They were quite familiar with others’ gods and were explicitly told by Yahweh not to worship them. It should be immediately noted that Weber uses the term ‘pariah’ only in the most technical sense, and not as a derogation. Even so, the sense that the Jewry were always somehow an ‘attachment’ to a dominant regional culture no matter where they had rusticated historically had engendered a dangerous disdain for them. Partisans of both Christianity and the later secularism Bauer exhorts, began to make suspicious claims against the Jews, at first because they refused conversion, and then refused nationalism. Marx would certainly say that these refusals amounted to the same thing in the end; that the ‘chosen people’ owed nothing to anyone or anything other than Yahweh Himself.

            Seen only in this light, the modern state of Israel is both emancipatory politically and religiously, something that for nineteenth-century thought is precisely impossible. Hence the problem of regression in its objective circumstance; the secular state must be overthrown by a theocracy – this is the evangelical line  – or the secular disguise of the theocratic demand must be overthrown by revolution – this is the communist goal. While the former is clearly backward looking, we cannot be certain that the latter aims at a more humane future since all major attempts thus far have turned backward upon themselves. One might object that if one understands Marx and Engels authentically, a real human freedom is at hand, but one could make the same claim for the Gospels. Indeed, Marx often comes across as the modernist Jesus, and for that matter, in all three great critiques of Enlightenment thinking, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, a replacement gospel is in fact sought, as if these iconoclastic thinkers had reached back around modernity itself in order to turn it inside out.

            But if there were mascot gods aplenty in antiquity, ignored or tolerated to a point by the official imperial belief systems, arranged much as folk religions and syncretisms range in contrast to the Catholic church, only Yahweh was the deity whose interest became historical. Yahweh was the God who apparently had an interest in a small slice of humanity, and then in the most radical act in the history of Western religion, instantiated Himself on earth as a human being the form of Christ, according to Christian tenets. Interest in humanity had, in one revolutionary stroke, been embodied in a human interest. I would suggest that our entire idea of revolution begins at this juncture, and so any authentically Jewish question is one that involves, at least now, all of humanity and not only its source culture.

            And yet, by definition, a god cannot have a human interest, so in appearing on earth as the Son of God, this immaculate birthing, rather fittingly, did not kill the mother but instead the father. We can read, perhaps at least literarily if not literally, that this was the reason why Jesus received no answer from his father when on the cross. Indeed, his father had not forsaken his son at all, for the former was already dead. I have argued elsewhere why an ethical god cannot exist, even if we cannot be certain that a metaphysical one does not, as atheists claim so vehemently. If this is correct, the Christian God is in essence but the afterlife of the Hebrew deity, nothing more.

            But surely also nothing less. And this is where the perduring quality of the Jewish question resides; even if we must answer ‘no’ to its original formulation, we cannot dismiss so easily the consequences of believing in an ethical godhead. On the lighter side, we discover a sensibility that all human beings are in principle a value, and thus have value, no matter their relative status, ignorance, enlightenment. On that darker, we are burdened with the sense that in order to transmute that base value into the precious material of the elect one must believe in a certain set of none other than religious demands, has lent itself to criminal abuses, even genocide. What must be acknowledged is that both the blessing and the curse are built into this structure from the beginning; indeed, they have been ‘placed before us’ and we have in fact chosen not between them but rather both at once.

            The Jewish question, seen in this way, has nothing to do with emancipation of a specific cultural group, but puts forward the very idea of human freedom in a world that, then as now, is mostly unfamiliar with, and even suspicious of, this auto-soteriological genius. If this question can be abused and turned to regression, it can also be exulted and evolved to engage the species in a radical freedom. If it remains human, then it cannot transcend history itself, but instead invites us to overcome our own specific histories, which is also the most charitable manner of interpreting remarks like Wagner’s and analyses like Marx and Engels’. Even if we must answer in the negative to its first formulation, in so doing, we must also understand that same question as suddenly a metaphorical interrogative, and one that remains immaculately pregnant with the future of the species entire.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 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 ‘S’ Word

The ‘S’ Word (Hint: this is no fecal matter)

            It is perhaps ironic, given its most human and personal quality, that sex is the topic that most people find the most difficult to speak about. If death is the unfathomable topic, and religion as well as politics are the ones most likely to lead to conflict, it is sex that all agree upon in an oddly related manner. It is quite fathomable, and simply speaking about it, at least, is unlikely to lead to conflict per se. And yet it remains taboo in all agrarian and post-agrarian social organizations. Any investigation into the reasons for this perduring sensibility would have to be anthropological in scope, and I am not equipped, so to speak, to perform such an analysis. What I can do, however, is ask a number of questions about the current version of the taboo, to see how it employs the same principle as the Durkheimian sacred in order to traverse world-scale historical and cultural boundaries and thus maintain its almost ominous elephant in our shared rooming house of society.

            Before the agrarian epoch, as may be observed in the remaining ethnographic contexts over the past century and a half, eating and sex were equivalents. In a great many such horticultural organizations, even the word for both acts is exactly the same. This notion that consumption was somehow related to consummation suggested a nascent mysticism. The Christian cult, in its first fluorescence, held that the Agape, the ‘love-feast’, was a mimesis of the union between Man and God, between the material and the mystical, and it is very likely that in pre-canonical Christianity, a strong erotic component was present, as it was in almost all of its Levantine competitors. The two key factors for Christianity’s ultimate success, well before it became imperially legal and thence ultimately official, was that unlike its competition, it admitted both males and females equally, and it also did not hitch itself up to a specific laboring class. Though, as Weber notes, it was the artisanal class of the Roman Empire that was first attracted to its ideas – which reminds us that Nietzsche’s comment that Christianity was a ‘slave religion’ must be taken metaphorically only, however else one may take it – these radically new sensibilities regarding ethics quickly spread. The artisans, used to working for aristocracy and thus witnessing both its splendor and leisure without ever being able to partake in it themselves, were the most obvious first catch of Pauline pastoralism, and it is rather this other historical point that lies in Nietzsche’s favor when he also characterizes Christianity as a religion based upon ressentiment.

            The Agape would likely scandalize today’s evangelicals, but it also served to promote the anti-gay stance that gradually became associated with the new instanciation of Abrahamic social relations. Evangels tend to want to have things both ways, as it were, but in this case, one must accept the usual bimodal eros untethered in order to maintain the boundary against same-sex unions and associated activities. Repressing the former only yields the presence of the latter, as the early Christians were aware but which our own versions of them desire to deny. Yet as early as Hellenistic times, as Foucault relates in his celebrated if regrettably truncated ‘History of Sexuality’, tracts and texts abounded exhorting people to abandon same-sexuality in favor of what was to become the dominant act. The Hellenes’ arguments were, by our standards, often earthy, laying out in the plainest language, for example, the advantages of womanhood as a sexual being in terms of there being willingly present a full three apertures, to stay civil, as opposed to the mere two available in men. That these are pre-Christian positions is instructive; the sense that large-scale Near Eastern civilizations had an immense demographic and hence military advantage over those Mediterranean was already very clear. With the Alexandrian empire at its height, these same early Europeans had at first hand come up against the great hordes of Asia Minor and well beyond, before Alexander himself wisely chose to stake his uttermost outpost in southern Afghanistan and proceed no further.

            Gay unions do not reproduce, and this basic biological fact contributed mightily to the sense that such activities would, in the end, result in the loss of culture as a whole. It is this sense that became a true sensibility, and may be seen today not only inside evangelical circles. There is yet a widespread notion that any departure from doxic sexuality is dangerous, even promoting of a crisis. That there are differences along more picayune lines – that sexual activity should be the sole purview of formal marriage, say, rather than of youth and its attendant ‘fornication’ – does nothing to obviate the more general agreement that in order for a culture to preserve itself, it must bear its own children. This last can be emphasized as a rider to the previous because anti-gay sentiment is often linked up with that anti-immigration. This too has both an irony and an authenticity to it: these ‘others’ still know how to breed! That is the essence of their threat to us. Even if we can scoff at the outlandish claims of Moscow and Tehran that ‘there are no homosexuals in our country’, what cannot be sniffed at is that however many are present abroad, their combined presence has no effect on the ability of these other cultures to think to dominate, and on a global scale. The clearest sign of this emerging dominance lies of course in the market, and hence in economic power, rather than that military, but the latter is coming along as well. In an age where large standing armies are obsolete, the link between demography and power is much more indirect than it was for the Alexandrians and their immediate successors. Even so, such a link is not entirely vacant. All of this contributes to the anti-gay line, and its historical bases, if not necessarily its contemporary concerns, are eminently factual.

            Aside from these more objective factors, there remains the residue of mystagogic variables which proclaim that informal sexuality, let alone same-sexuality, constitutes a betrayal of the covenant Man has with God. If Adam’s rib is more truly his upstanding member, then we allow ourselves to perform the singular act of mystical union, a kind of personal Agape, if you will, and with the same goal as had the early cultists, and this aside from admitting a great variety of obvious japes; the ‘ribbed’ condom, say. This singular goal, to reproduce the new ethics and spread the glad tidings – the one is the action and the other the resultant act – had as its resistance the previously dominant same-sexuality which was seen in Greek and Roman cultures as both a form of mentorship and of simple pleasureful leisure, as well as the sensibility that the Gods were themselves equally capable of desire, even lust. Zeus’ intimate and unceasing peregrinations were well known, but it cannot be more clear that the pre-Christian Mediterranean also made less transparent distinctions amongst love, lust, desire, and pleasure which became more rigid in the following epoch. As Nietzsche cleverly put it ‘Christianity gave Eros a poison to drink; he did not die of it, to be sure, but degenerated into vice.’

            And the scope of what constituted vice thus became much wider, so that by the time of the Troubadors and the incipience of romantic love, the chief draw of this new feeling was not so much that contrasting-sexuality be abandoned, but rather that its very formality had gotten in the way of its authentic celebration and thus union. And though it is certainly the case that in some arranged or pseudo-arranged marriages, the latter the ideal of evangelicals, love can arise after the fact of formal union, most Westerners agree that love precedes marriage and must do so if the formal socially sanctioned relationship should have any authenticity and perdurance itself. And it is not that vociferous Christians entirely disagree with this notion either, it is just that one should refrain from materially consummating such love in sexual union pre-maritally. This mutual chastity, it is argued, can only heighten desire, and thus and thence the desire of the lovers for one another. It is, perhaps oddly, an ethic borrowed not from the history of religion but rather from that of poetry and the courtships of the medieval romances.

            We have briefly seen that there are a number of related and unrelated factors at work which backdrop the ongoing taboo surrounding sex in our society. Foucault himself warned us that we should talk less about sex, perhaps contra to Salt-N-Pepa and a myriad of others, and actually do more of it. This Dionysian cast was not at all absent for the early Christians, so we are left to explicate, insofar as we can given the vicissitudes of history more generally, how we have moved ourselves from doing to talking, from openness to secrecy, from blitheness to neurosis, about sex. If we can do so with candor, it may be the case that we begin to see more clearly the relationships between technology and same-sexuality, between demographics and political economy, between morality and ethics, and of the utmost, those tensions interior to the intimacies between actual human partners, no matter their ‘orientations’. If we yet seek a unio mystica between and amongst human beings, if we continue to imagine that reality may be reenchanted through desire and even lust, then by working through what can only ever be a partial talk therapy of the phenomenology of sexuality, we may find ourselves much closer to understanding our culture’s essential ideal; that of love itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.