Why is Science Doubted?

Why is Science Doubted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Wholly Rational Action Realizable?

Is Wholly Rational Action Realizable?

This to you, who lives beyond my reach and ken

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

                        I cannot breast such love as my heart now and then

                        Breaks itself upon the shore that also crushes bone

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

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

                        No longer will love be known as ever that

                        Extant between the fair and fairer seen

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

                        Laying underneath all two-souled color been

                        These souls have given up their claim, their pat

                        Clamor against which I have plugged by ears atween

                        Enter thus! I both command and commend to thee

                        So that we may port your soul and souled asunder

                        Split as is the heavens by the lighted scree

                        Split as were my eyes and ears and lips by thunder

                        Such storms as these will ever question me

                        So I shall ne’er accept the loot of blunder

                        Enter thus, I beg you in loving supplication

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

                        Even my offal, but not awful urination

                        Meant no disrespect but only that with I would strike

                        Down all who overlook our human situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addiction as Rule-Following

Addiction as Rule-Following

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing the Last Novel

Writing the Last Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modernity’s Fragile Selfhood

Modernity’s Fragile Selfhood

            “Here there speaks no fanatic, here there is no ‘preaching’, here faith is not demanded; out of an infinite abundance of light and depth of happiness there falls drop after drop, word after word – a tender slowness of pace is the tempo of these discourses. Such things as this reach only the most select…” (Nietzsche, 1888).

                In his foreword to his final work, completed mere weeks before his genetic neurological condition overtook him, Nietzsche’s absolute affirmation of personal character in the face of the fate modernity had proclaimed upon itself is yet mitigated by its reliance, albeit indirect, upon the very antithesis to his own philosophy, that of the ‘tragic recurrence’. This is so because to affirm the self as ‘what one must become and what one is’ is to take seriously the ancient notion of the intrinsic value of the self and of each person’s selfhood. Nietzsche’s anti-Christian and anti-Buddhist sentiments are not sabotaged by this ethical  kinship, but rather made into obverses thereof, for the Nietzschean self hypostasizes the selfhood first introduced in the East and then the West by these then novel world-systems. But we must ask first, what is this radical affirmation of being-oneself working against, given that by the time of the fin de siécle no antique religion could have had such suasion to prompt the much touted ‘reevaluation of all values’.

            Let us then suggest that Nietzsche’s target is not religion at all, but rather everything that at first denied and then overcame the religious sense of both selfhood and fate alike. It is well known that Nietzsche, though he accepted Darwin’s understanding of the origins of life as a fact, was most dismayed by its discovery. That evolution during the nineteenth century was seen as a radical denial of creation – today, we realize that cosmic evolution must understand itself, with a certain irony to be sure, very much in the cast of the old metaphysics; infinite in terms of the cyclical universe or yet the multiverse: there is no ‘starting point’; both of these are ancient ideas that pre-date by far the religions of intrinsically valuable selfhood – suggested to Nietzsche the idea that God was now ‘dead’. Discursively, such an ‘event’ must be back-dated at least to Hume and Vico, who between them relativized the conception of both culture and history and hence as well all contents as might be found within these. However unwitting this murder may have been in the 1730s, by the 1880s the divine corpse had been retrieved and the mourning begun.

            But Nietzsche asks, what is, who is Man without God? ‘Man’ too, now lives on borrowed time and indeed, 1914 put an end to the culture which exonerated mankind from its undue and vain fixation upon the sense that progress and evolution not only went hand in hand but were more or less the same thing. In our own time, beginning in the 1920s, the personalization of religion was undertaken in earnest. Today, the conception of God is as is the conception of Man; for Western believers, God is one’s own God, and each of us is said to have a ‘personal’ connection to such a divinity that was utterly unknown historically. Conversely, ‘Man’ has become ‘men’, or, more politic, ‘humanity’. Because of its indubitable link with organismic evolution, the term humanity has within it an undeniable species reference and thus is difficult for many people to identify with. It seems to denote our animal form, though at a distance from nature, rather than connote the spirit which was understood as animating that form. As such, our contemporary conception of ourselves does not make up for the loss of the divine definition of the locus of our being.

            And this is, in essence, the entire issue within the ineptly named ‘culture wars’. There is nothing within modernity that can equal, let alone better, the ancient understanding of humanity as divinely endowed, not just with grace, but also with reason. And Nietzsche was the first thinker to realize this. In the face of this insoluble problem which he also understood as inevitable, he offered instead the absolute affirmation of the self-as-it-is: Godless, finite, but subject to the eternal recurrence of the same and constantly willing itself into being through ‘the will to power and nothing besides’, as he famously intones. It is a bold, courageous and altogether necessary maneuver, but can it ever be more than a ‘quick fix’? Nietzsche’s ‘Dionysian’ tone, especially vivid in his final works, implies that it cannot in fact be anything more. What was ‘more’ was lost forever when humanity decided to make decisions for itself, by itself. This condition was foreshadowed in the Hebrew account of the expulsion. To speak somewhat metaphorically, what the serpent didn’t count on was being ejected along with the unhappy couple and thence was also left to fend for itself. Evil, in a word, had thus also been personalized.

            With the individuation of both good and evil it could only be a matter of time before the entire system that was constructed by the moral apparatus of a great chain of being broke apart. It was given impetus, certainly, by the ‘discovery’ of global cultures of which no canonical narrative could take account. The ‘lost tribe’ sensibility carried one only so far. How many lost tribes, again? Beyond this, the perduring resistance to any specific world-system by its competitors – today, the half billion plus Buddhists number the very smallest of the four major religious oriented architectures, for instance – frustrated any attempt to argue that one specific faith had actually latched on, even by happenstance, to the truth of things. And beyond this, the rise of scientific method and result, conquering the vast majority of explanatory territory that used to be the sole preserve of religious explication, ultimately felled the now hollow idols that Nietzsche, in an almost reminiscent manner, discusses in Götzendammerung (also 1888). All of these world historical factors occurred, however, long before Nietzsche was writing anything at all, and it is a simple error of displacement to associate his work with the reality of our mutable, if loosely shared, condition, either at present or centuries ago.

            Instead, Nietzsche today looks more like an ally for a kind of morality than anything else. The ethics of the ‘Overman’ are their own super-morality, one to which the finite and discontinuous beings of a humanity made base by evolution might aspire. But we cannot be naïve on such a profound score; the path before us is not one of a humanity evolving into something which is ‘beyond’ itself. This sensibility echoes the tradition, wherein transfiguration was an active mechanic. Today, the desperate rush to invent an ‘indefinite human’, a cyber-organic-stem-celled-artificially-intelligent ‘thing’, is a symptom not of aspiration at all, but rather of anxiety. And it is not death per se that animates this inauthentic anxiety, but rather, and once again, vanity. It is almost as if the brash among us say to themselves, “If God has been dead, perhaps even since the incarnation – this is why the Father left the Son ‘hanging’, so to speak; the former was already dead – and now Man as well has passed, then those remaining are destined to become the new divinities”, ‘Men as Gods’, to borrow Wells’ title. Vanity, yes, but also a kind of neurotic compulsion to mechanically metastasize mortal desire unto infinity.

            Nothing against the passions, we must note. They have their place, especially for youth, as part of a phase of ever-changing human existence, even within the singular life. But obsession denies that life, just as delusion obfuscates the life of the species-essence more generally. For a mature being, the very definition of growth is to place each phase’s form of being within its own existential envelope, and desire, anxiousness, even recklessness, all ‘the passions unabated’, as Goethe has it, belong with youth and to youth alone they must adhere. A great scandal of modernity is, to my mind, how we have extended youth indefinitely – it is surely our own ‘adult’ fetishization of youth, something we ourselves have lost, that motivates us not only to keep youth young for overlong as well as imagine being ourselves eternally young as a consciousness housed in a future machine – at the cost of other phases of the human experience. We hear of evangelicals coercing young adults as if they were still small children, including physically coercing them in certain sects. And though this is deplorable, to focus our critique upon it alone is a mere decoy and projection, exuding from us, and as such constitutes a denial of how the larger society seeks to keep all persons childish, ideally for the entire life-course, simply because we are more easily manipulatable in that form. We can thus be sold almost anything, from irrelevant toys to equally irrelevant, but all the more dangerous, politicians.

            So Nietzsche’s exhortation must also be seen as an argument against any sense of ‘beyond’ at all, whether one traditional or one hypermodern. The Overman is manifestly not a superior being in terms of mechanism or dispassion. Rather it is the maturity of being that recognizes that existential change over the life course is our way of ‘dying many times to become immortal’. No zealot, no ‘fanatic’, speaks of or to this kind of being. Within its changing course, we are as is the neighbor figure; spontaneous, shunning the status and esteem of social role, reaching out to others in distress as by self-definition and as a creative ethics. Hence there is also no sermon, no ‘preaching’, of such a spontaneity. It is as we are, thrown into the world very much against our individual will. Indeed, one could still argue with some merit that this existential thrownness – none of us asks to be born and this is as well why no ‘faith’ as such is required, at least at first – bears the imprint of the afterlife of all Godhead, or perhaps it could be experienced as a kind of ‘afterglow’; life as the outcome of what remains an astonishing miracle of birth. And we are, sectarian or no, all of us born again and again over the life course, if we allow ourselves to be so. Those who are lucky enough to grow old accomplish this marvelous feat, with more or less elegance and aplomb, and with it begin to know the truer grace of Being as self-created in the face of the void.

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

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

            One could thus say that history is action in the realm of the imaginary, or even the spectacle that one gives oneself of an action. Conversely, action consults history, which teaches us, says Weber, certainly not what must be willed, but the true meaning of our volitions. (Merleau-Ponty, 1955:11).

                Recently the activist slogan ‘the personal is the political’ has become well known to anyone who has attempted to identify themselves and thus their actions with a cause. This ‘volition’, this being-for-something, has a number of meanings as well as manifestations. And it is to its own history – the act that has been and not the action which will be – that we must look to find the pedigree of interconnected meanings which have accrued to this or that sensibility regarding our actions in the present. Weber is the first to thoroughly understand this relationship, which originates as an horizon of expectations and associated historical lenses in Vico by 1725. For it is in the distinction between finite goals and absolute values that we discover both action and act in tandem and as mutually imbricated.

            Let us first examine our sense of what constitutes ‘the personal’. For the Greeks, the purely private person was termed the ‘idiot’, the one who turns his back upon not only his civic duties but sociality in general. We could, with perhaps a mere footnote, continue such a use of this term today. But other Greek terms are more expansive and collide more forcefully with our modern horizon of meaningful expectation. The person who flouts social custom and morality is the ‘moron’. Such a term is in scant use today, at least in polite circles, but its general meaning is well taken. Of course, yet more obscure now is the Greek’s term for the one who flouts the fates themselves; he is nothing less than the ‘hypermoron’. But we can safely dismiss this bold individual given the altered meaning of destiny in modernity. We do, however, still understand those who simply don’t seem to ‘get it’, whether the scene is civility, sociality, citizenship or yet domesticity or the work life, as being not merely abnormative culturally but also somehow beyond the social succor of mutual aid. ‘They don’t want to fit in’, is something we hear of such fellowmen, with the heavy ellipsis that we should, in our turn, feel no sympathy for them since, in their ‘moronic’ action they add to the stress and strain felt by the remainder of us who continue to labor for a sane society and a healthy humanity.

            At the same time, we are aware of the tension between the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, the person and the polis. It seems to us a perennial one but in fact it is scarcely three centuries old. The ‘sovereign’ individual of the Enlightenment remains a Western ideal, even though personal rights are either questioned or yet limited in many places globally. But even in the West, we are shy of declaring the fullest range of human rights to the singular self simply because no society could exist without some certain set of limitations placed upon that same selfhood. These boundaries are under constant scrutiny and have been found to be most mutable, for better or for worse. And since the individual cannot ever be entirely free of obligation to the group, another modern distinction has come to the fore; that between public and private.

            It is in Arendt that we find the deepest exposition of the relationships between the public life of a member of the polis and the privacy of that same person’s alternate domain. Mirroring in a kind of ‘material’ manner the much more ancient distinction between the life of contemplation and the life of action, the one today understood as personalist and even private – though not in the utter disregard for either the public life or its ‘action’ – and the other observed in the shared sphere of the ‘open space’ of the public. It is this further division between how others may or may not interact with the person who has committed her thoughts to the private sphere and equally been committed to her actions in the collective realm that gives us the impression that we have inevitably and necessarily divided ourselves into two patently differing parts. Psyche and Anthropos, soul and form, mind and body, person and persona and so on, all cleave to this contemporary sense – and is it not also a sensation? – that I am not one thing entire but rather two relatively discreet entities; my ‘truer’ self and what I show to the world.

            Certainly at this point it can be gainsaid that both such conceptions of the self are ‘true’ in that they have both validity – a conceptual forcefulness and sensibility that includes both fact and value – and veridicity – that it is convincing enough to generate a portion of our worldview or social reality. When we casually, but regularly, tell someone that ‘this is a personal matter’, we are speaking over the divide that tells between these two major aspects of modern selfhood. In due course, much of what may have been occluded comes to wider light, whether in politics or in biography. This tells us that the personal is time sensitive. Something overfull with meaning at one point in our lives may even become devoid of relevant meaning later on. Each of us, having lived long enough, will experience many such transitions, which in turn tell us that the apparently discreet division between private and public, personal and impersonal, is at the least quite mobile and its discretions are liquid. Both of these characteristics impinge on any sense that in principle, ‘the personal is the political’, that is, always is so.

            Clearly, in fact, it is not. Indeed, as vouchsafed by the vast majority of social media posts, what people take to be personal and yet are avidly interested in sharing with certain others is hardly political in nature and never will become so. Now one may argue, with Baudrillard for instance, that the oft perverse simulacra constructed by and through digital life is after all representative of a kind of politics, the oddly but fittingly also perverse ‘politics of the apolitical’, shall we say. This suggestion is not without merit, but it remains a distortion of the widely shared social meaning of that which the polis consists: the collective identity and obligation of a culture as made manifest by the members thereof. Insofar as digital pedantry documenting the innumerable and seemingly interminable quotidia of the daily round is neither collectively identified with – witness the digital cliques often in conflict with one another – nor is anyone obligated to pay any attention thereto, these ‘persona of personalism’ remain outside meaningful political thought and action alike.

            The same cannot be said for the impersonal. Let us now turn to this obverse concept. If the ‘personal’ cannot be either ‘idiocy’ or ‘publicity’, and we have suggested it cannot in principle and by definition as well be the political, the ‘impersonal’ appears to escape all of these limitations in one stroke. One, the impersonal is manifest not in individuals at all but rather in social institutions, such as the church, the state, and the modern state’s minions; the education system, the various governmental ministries, the civil service, and the military. This is not to say that the effects of the presence of such sets of institutions might not be personally felt by individuals, it is merely to state that the institutions themselves can never be thought of as either personal or private. The so-called ‘private sector’ remains public and impersonal no matter whether or not the state invests in it, and indeed in our time, most such organizations are ‘public/private’ hybrids, leading to a host of other conflicts, the most scandalous of which in any democracy is the two-tiered education system. In any case, the impersonal now appears to be larger than life, if such is only defined biographically or from the perspective of a smaller community of shared interest and action.

            For Weber, modern rational organizations were anonymous, both in that very sense of ‘being impersonal’ and in their freedom from individual suasion and thus also obligation. Such an institution was part of his ‘ideal types’ analysis, wherein absolute values were shunned and finite goals structured all action. The very notion of the ’act’, as both historical and visionary, the one providing a kind of testament to the other’s cosmogonical birth, could not be part of any rationally self-defining organization, whether ‘public’ or ‘private’ sector. Just so, the modern rational individual – who is both private and public and participates almost equally in both self-defining ‘sectors’ in the more base sense of where the money comes from and who has sanctioned access to it – finds herself possessed by finite goals and is placed at a fair distance from any vision of an absolute value. Peter Berger, following upon Weber, has reiterated that what used to be understood as cosmic in both scope and import has oddly become what is most intimate and personal for us today; the religious vision is perhaps only the most obvious example of this transfiguration of ideals. Today, one can hang one’s hat upon a personalist religious sensibility and this makes one all the more unique, the singular soldier of a Christianity that is about your soul and no other, for instance. In no other historically known period could this make any sense.

            Similarly, the impersonality of modern institutions, however they may depart from Weber’s ideal rationality and impunity from private interest, declaim their symbolic frontages as capable only within the realm of the cultural imaginary. That is, a state governs a people only insofar as it can convince the latter that it does not truly exist without them. In reality, modern government appears to exist in precisely this fashion, giving those who labor within it, elected or hired or appointed, the equally distanciated sense that though they are ‘public servants’, neither such a public, nor hence their service to it, in actuality exists.

            So if we take the personal to be the space wherein action is contemplated in the privacy of one’s own individual musings, wherein ‘projects of action’ are worked out in a speculative, ‘phantasmatic’ fashion, and within which one can decline any real social responsibility – thoughts are yet ‘free’, as is said – at once we must deny the activist’s ideal. Instead, the personal is not necessarily, not yet, or yet never, the political. But we have seen it is otherwise with the impersonal. Though it strives, in its most rational and ideal form, to be apolitical, in reality and in history it is ever cleaving to this or that politics of the day. This is especially the case in nations where the civil service occupies a great proportion of institutional roles, such as in education or governmentality or health care. Only in the judiciary may we expect a strenuous public disavowal of the political, even though, once again, we know that the laws of today and indeed, on the ground, how any such set of laws is actually enforced and upon whom, are very much political in their origin.

            What advantage does this discussion hold out for the individual who, on the one hand, must balance her private selfhood, her desires, her anxieties, her prostrate fears and visionary hopes, with her public persona and its singular ambitions, collective responsibilities, reciprocal obligations and loyalist duties, and on the other hand, that same person’s efforts to translate thought into action without ever the sense that such ensuing action be either complete or yet completely fulfilled in its intended meaning? I think first of all that a clarification of what is meant by the term ‘personal’ is to our advantage. One, we no longer need guard it with such stentorian status; the personal is mostly just that, undeserving of much consideration from others, and so mutable as to dislocate our too-pious loyalty thereto. At the same time, two, the impersonal is laid more open to a general critique, some of which must emanate from a personalist perspective – in that I am affected sometimes intimately by anonymous actions originating in impersonal spaces; the stock market is perhaps the most obvious but also egregious day-to-day example – and the remainder of which must hail from the hallows of history and as well advance from the actions of the culture at large. Three, if there is a dialectic at hand, it can only be envisioned not as some ‘life/work balance’, some other ‘financial freedom’, or yet an ‘holistic health’, to name a few casual catchphrases which likely construe a vulgar politics of their own. No, such an apex, such a synthesis, will only be achieved through the constant and consistent critical stance applied by an effective ethical consciousness that in itself has already understood itself as being neither personal nor political but rather historical through and through. For history is the answer to morality, the saboteur of ideology, the humanity in the organization, the humaneness in the individual. We are in our essence nothing other than historical beings, and our local divisions, our divided selfhoods, are within it once again united in concert within its deontological embrace.

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

Bathing with Bach, Showering with Shostakovich

Bathing with Bach, Showering with Shostakovich

            If one could choose a single word with which to describe our present day, let us suggest ‘urgency’. We no longer live in a world wherein action has the time to evolve into act. A sense of the ‘must’ animates our every endeavor. This sense alone is, in itself, ancient, and likely begins in the eschatological time of Pauline anxiety, wherein the pilgrim finds himself concerned solely about whether the next is also the last. It might be a footstep forward into oblivion or salvation, it might be an action frozen into an act before its own history could be written. Urgency is a leitmotif in Western consciousness but until our post-war period, it has remained an abstraction; ‘one knows not the moment’, ‘I will come like a thief in the night’, and so on. This time of times is always put off, the end of the world is nigh but what end and how nigh?

            Is it a simple matter of a reaction that, preceding the revolution of 1789 in France, the beginning of the modern age and the first herald that urgency was indeed coming down to earth, that for a century prior this same culture had been about a steady state of cultural celebration, with Louis XIV, the ‘sun king’, exhorting his artists to remember that he has bequeathed to them the highest of tasks, his fame, including of course his posterity. The highest of tasks was also thus the noblest of gifts. A Rousseau was possible within this stasis; his ‘reveries’ solitary and his walks perambulations which always returned to the center of things. These are dreams without urgency, visions, hanging in the air above us, never touching the ground beneath. But a De Sade was impossible, for his nightmares, unleashed right at the moment of revolution, sound of nothing but urgencies, though they are base, vile, and sing the bass viol of the bowels of a now aged aristocratic chamber orchestra. These are nightmares without end, and thus even De Sade represents a transition in culture, and not the change once made. He is a liminal figure, which is one of the reasons his works remain, to a point, distressing. The orchestra is now staffed by chamber maids, even maidens, but it still sings of the domestic daily doings though shifted into the nocturnal.

            Thus it remains within the contemplative life, which shuns action even for its own sake and makes all human interaction into an historical act before its time, before history has an opportunity to sabotage morality, and before the actors realize how petty are their desires, even in torture and murder. For Rousseau’s Julie, a paragon of prudishness and propriety, is nevertheless the abstract ideal of the misogynist middle-ground. Nothing could be said against her even if equally nothing for her. But De Sade’s Juliette is perverse, a heroine who forces us to reckon with our own desires ranged against her. Nothing can be said against her insofar as she in fact already has everything that we want her to possess. But unlike her predecessor, Juliette is also armed with all that can be said against us. She is an indictment of misogyny, and the fact that she enjoys being only this only makes us look the worse. If De Sade retained his liminality by never committing to social and political revolution but rather merely described the stultifying darkness of the Ancien Régime, his best and brightest heroine begins to sign the radical change that augurs the new desire. And she does so simply by virtue of her own desires being utterly urgent.

            But these figures exist in a microcosm. What of the wider world-historical change that ushers in our own age and frames it at one end with the most solid of aesthetic and ethical foundations and at the other by nothing less than constant motion? This larger field, cast in the deepest relief in 1789, a centrifugal cauldron, a storm’s eye, a nexus making cathexis, is still better represented by music than literature. At the far end towers yet the figure of Bach. He is summative, his art the result of a millennia of evolutionary architecture. His most important predecessor, Monteverdi, is Bach’s own phylogenetic avatar. Here, and for the first time, Western music begins to assemble other forms, assimilate other sounds, throw upwards the folk song and pull downwards the religious chant. In Bach we at last have reached the zenith of everything the West represented to that time; the idea of the ideals, the mathematical symmetry of sound, the music of the spheres. And when the sun king dies in 1715, Bach’s own star – and is it odd that Bach’s face should so often be portrayed in our own time within a sun figure? – is about to ascend to heights no mere composer could have heretofore known. And this ascent is predicated, also for the first time, upon not patronage but upon art itself.

            It is in the B Minor Mass that everything comes together. But this ‘everything’ is of course the act, never the action. It is the act against which all action must thenceforth take place and take its place. In this magnum opus, Bach presents the universe as it was known and knowable in his own day. It is a statement in the most stentorian terms. One bathes in such music; it does not wash over you but envelopes you, and while it is cleansing it retains the ability to magnify itself through one’s very dross. When the work concludes, we do not feel any sense of change or that things should change in any way. We feel as complete as does the work itself. It is in this sense a space wherein life and death have been reconciled and no longer have any singular meaning. And how can we not be eternally grateful for such an expression of the cosmic force of existence uplifted into the essential?

            But in fact that is the entire problem Bach poses for us. The ‘eternal’ character of gratitude is nothing but an obstacle to both evolution and to adaptation. It presumes upon a world itself unchanging, a cosmic order that is as infinite as it is timeless. Here, art does not imitate life but rather transcends it. This is the understanding that Bach, the divinely human architect, brings to the rest of us. This is the far side of the frame of modernity with which we still must reckon. It is so beautiful that it is like a death to turn away from it, and yet turn away we absolutely must.

            In our own time we have, with halting harrow and tremulous trepidation, given ourselves the tools to do so. Beethoven is the first revolutionary composer. At first he imagined himself an ally of Napoleon, but after seeing the results of Austerlitz in Vienna, realized that he as an artist was the ambassador of the highest humanity and hardly the lowest. Thus the amended dedication of the third symphony, itself the first truly modern work of music. It is the first because for the first time we have a sense of the urgent throughout the work. Beethoven 3 is the benchmark for all such works that follow and the closest contemporary parallels to this work may be found in the symphonies of Shostakovich. They are linked by that singular sensibility, urgency, and tasked with that same singular ambition, revolution.

            In Shostakovich we have found at last a role model untainted by politics and indeed, in his own life, as a prisoner of the Soviet State from time to time, as a suspect artist whose works were always too ‘Western’ for hardliners, as the musical equivalent of Solzhenitsyn and indeed more gifted, Shostakovich through his art not only defeated the evils of authoritarianism – it is an ongoing irony that his works are performed so often in today’s Russia – but also exposed the fraudulence of 1917. In Symphony 11, ‘The Year 1905’, we are thrust into action, not act! We are immersed in urgency, never somnolence! Many of his greatest works declare the pressing need for a new revolution, and not merely for Russia. His German counterpart, Hans Werner Henze, intoned the same: “Man’s greatest work of art: world revolution.”

            Encountering Shostakovich one does not bathe, but rather showers. Here, even the water itself never stops moving. It takes the dross, without assimilation, down the drain of history with its own life ever onward. We are ourselves drained in such an encounter and this time the feeling is one of incompleteness. I am missing something, the music throws me forward. It is the future I am missing, the very human future, no longer a function of eschatology, no longer premised upon faith and promising salvation. No, in Shostakovich we receive a demand and not a promise. Revolution is ongoing just as history does not rest. Change is the only permanence, which sums our contradictory existence as active and acting beings who resist the future, the very thing that gives us life. Is it due only to an archaic sense of art that we flinch at the horizon? In contemporary art we find not beauty nor even transcendence, but rather the shadow work of the collective soul. Every encounter is a confrontation with ourselves, splayed open before the Augenblick of revolutionary lightning. If we turn away we are as were the Nazis, cowed into reactionary diaboli in the face of life as it now is and as it now must be. The fascist draws a line at the moment his conscience speaks. He will not hear it, not hear of it. Each one of us who adores Bach without reaching both hands out to the heroes of Shostakovich’s works is no less that same fascist in spite of our apparent civility and ‘good taste’.

            For it is no matter of etiquette that animates the history of our own day. It is rather made meaningful through scruple, ethical and aesthetic at once. As John Berger suggested, we must vanquish the sense that great art carries humanity up and over its own condition in order to regain the sensibility that in fact what art in reality does is make more real our shared situation so that we in turn can more meaningfully negotiate it from within its midst. Art is and always will be our willing ally in any crisis. It is we who turn ourselves away from this joint task and reject its ever-revolutionary gift.

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

The State of the Division Address

The State of the Division Address

            I speak to you today from an unknown location. This place which has no name, and which can only be called therefore a space, is nothing less than the Now. It is immanent; it is fullest presence. It calls to the conscience and yet must defer its response to the future. This future does not yet exist and yet it in turn is imminent, almost upon us. It is simply what is next, and because we cannot entirely know the next thing, event, time or place, its import escapes us. Living as humans within the ambit of mortal consciousness, knowing the past exists as memory, trace, artifact and history; knowing the present is too fleeting to dwell within; and knowing that the future is itself unknowing of its own presence, it is perhaps inevitable that we turn elsewhere to understand the meaning of our condition, odd and fragile.

            Even though each one of exists simultaneously in all three guises of abstract time – we have memories and we live in cultures which have histories; we are ‘in’ the moment without being inside of it as if we were halted and time had stopped; and we design our lives so that a future of some kind is expected if not entirely taken for granted – and thus each of us understands, however incompletely, the indwelling of our beings in that unknown location which nevertheless speaks to us of existence itself, it has become clear that we as a mass culture have limned ourselves into an unenviable position regarding the definition of this ‘elsewhere’ to which we direct all of our collective energies.

            The choice laid before us is one between two further abstractions, freedom and salvation. They are opposites, even antagonists, and their hold upon our imagination is such that if we do decide for one or the other, the one left to the side is immediately scrabbled up as if it too were part of the singular decision; being saved first is also being free, being free first is thence being saved. Because these two conceptions refer to states of being and their relationship to Being, whatever the definition of this may be – it matters only for the ethnographer to delineate the contents of belief, here it is a question of contrasting absolute values of faith – it is always possible to add to one’s choice an indefinite list of other traits which are claimed to accrue to the original state. One thus finds ultimate freedom in an intimacy with a Being and a history which offers salvation of beings, or one finds that one has saved oneself, not only from the History of Being as an alternative and oft-seen superior ontology, but also from the very much human history that is just as often understood to have been a conflict sourced in beliefs about Being. So, on the one side, salvation offers an exeunt from our mortality; it is the finitude which hallmarks historical consciousness uplifted into the infinitude which expresses the continuity between Man and God. The cosmos presents to us no longer a finite experience, but one more in line with its own cycle of infinity. On the other side, finitude is accepted as a celebration of the open future in which anything may occur and through which I may become anything I desire, thereby placing me within the infinitude of cosmic evolution. My finite existence become infinite through my participation in that ongoingness which in its totality must escape my partial imagination. In this very incompleteness do I find my ultimate freedom, since I have no reason nor ability to know the whole.

            Both of these absolute values are powerful expressions of the will to life. Salvation seeks life eternal and thus the overcoming of both will and history. Freedom desires a will that is itself endless, hooked into both human history and that cosmic. I marvel at both senses of how we are what we are, a consciousness made up of an ethical conscience, a reasoning wide-awake thinking, and an uncannily clever unconscious which, contrary to some popular psychological accounts as well as old-world demonologies, tirelessly works wholly in the service of that very reason. Once again, while salvation seemingly offers sanctity to being, freedom appears to offer it sanity. The difference lies in one’s willingness to frame will and faith either together as sibling allies, or as contiguous but contrasting interests and drives. Salvation unites will and faith by subsuming will as the worldly manifestation and agent of faith. Freedom unites both by defining them as almost the same thing; one must have faith in one’s will, for instance, and one must will oneself to have faith in the face of both an impersonal though intimate history, and a cosmos both anonymous and aloof. Salvation tells us that we are not alone in our quest for the wisdom, not of the ‘how’, but of the why, while freedom declares that our solitude is at the very heart of authentic choice and the being-able of living as a reasoning being. It takes the presence of human reason to be evidence of our evolutionary ability to free ourselves from that very evolution. Salvation seeks to convince us that this ability is the kerygmatic gift of a God; bestowed upon us so that we can know of God’s will and perhaps even of God’s mind. Freedom assures us that the Gestalt of the entire history and pre-history of our species is contained within that same kernel; our ability to think things through with no end is thus just as infinite as is the mind of any divinity.

            So is it an effort merely of perspective to offer ourselves these two ultimate sensibilities? Are we describing to ourselves the converse side of the same shining object, the brilliance emanating therefrom blinding us to the reality that it is the same thing of which we are speaking? If this is indeed the case, then we have defined both salvation and freedom only incompletely, using the other as a foil and as counterpoint, when in fact they are two names for the same basic will to live and live on. At present, from our unknown mortal space, we can only suggest that this may be the most reasonable manner to think about them. In doing so, we avoid placing them in competition with one another and we may even be able to use each one as a way of understanding the manifold of the other. This is not a purely historical exercise, in that we are not solely interested in questions such as ‘how did the concept of freedom change or limit that of salvation?’ or ‘how does the lingering belief in salvation impact or impinge upon our conception of freedom?’ and the like. No, such a question that brings together salvation and freedom in a tandem query about the meaning of being-present, currently unknown, states at once the division in our contemporary culture and a manner through which it can be partially overcome. It tells us why we are so divided, which in itself is a kind of Godsend, as well as expressing a doubly powerful means by which we can understand one another with a great deal more authenticity and intimacy than we currently do.

            For right now, the extended presence of the Now in both directions, as it were, we are nothing but division, and the boundary drawn up in the sand beneath and between us is inscribed by the hand of a being who has taken on for itself either the divine or the cosmic. In both we are utterly mistaken about our condition. In reality, we are neither the authors of salvation nor of freedom, for we are but expressions, in both narratives, of either a superior being which is Being ‘itself’, or another order of being which encompasses all beings. To pretend to either is to at best avoid our status as the ‘one who can think but not know’, the ‘one who can reason through unreason’ – referring to the interface between the conscious mind and that unconscious – and the ‘one which lives on in spite of death’. Neither the divine nor the cosmic has any use for such devices as we have conjured for ourselves, so in dividing I and thou, I am not only doing a disservice to that mortal genius I am also dragging the infinite down to my small level. Only in my narrow imagination does it concede and consent.

            Instead, this state of the current division in our global society should inform us that we are dangerously near the precipice which heralds the loss of all meaning. In placing overmuch the value of absolution into absolute terms, both the purveyor of salvation and that of freedom have excerpted themselves from their own shared humanity. In spite of the historical argument that salvation speaks to us of something that has always been and is itself timeless, whereas freedom recognizes that the essence of time is tempered only through temporality and thus cannot be overtaken by Being, it is more truly a question of whether or not there is to be a human future. In this, salvation steps aside from the ongoingness of the imminent future, and freedom seeks to influence, even control, its oncoming mass. Salvation pulls me out of its way, freedom allows me to step bodily into it. More truly then, the apparent choice to be made between the two absolute values is one of ethics. Do I take myself out of history entirely, that passed and that yet to be made, or do I throw myself once more into the flux through which I have also lived? Is this a choice for the moment, or is it rather that we are staring in the face of the very passage to Being? In a word, that we must choose freedom first and let salvation happen in due course, that freedom is in fact a choice and salvation is simply an outcome? It is too trite to simply tell ourselves that ‘heaven can wait’, for in imagining that something other is indeed awaiting us takes the edge away from living being; that double-sided edge, one of which we own as a visionary sword and the other of which threatens us at every mortal turn. No, just here we must step back and honestly answer to our ownmost condition: I cannot know of my own salvation; I cannot avoid my own freedom. So the very choice between absolute values is itself a false one. Spurious and specious, both salvation and freedom, one the unknowing fraud of premodernity and the other the overwrought charade of our own time, have combined to render human existence too partial to its own projections. The time has come to place both to the side and step away from the disunity they have sowed amongst our shared humanity. Only by doing so will we have an opportunity to discover that if and in the first place, either of them were ever real.

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

Old World Mind, New World Machine

Old World Mind, New World Machine

            Yet anyone can follow the path of meditative thinking in his own manner and within his own limits. Why? Because man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being. Thus meditative thinking need by no means be ‘high-flown’. It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history. (Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 1959, page 47).

                For many of us, thinking is itself a practical matter. It dwells upon the matters at hand, it lives only for a specific purpose. This because our society provides such ready-mades, the stuff of the collective perception that constitutes a worldview, that in fact we are seldom called upon to think at all. At the same time, perhaps most of us consider thinking to be the province of the scientist or the philosopher alone. For the preeminent thinker of the twentieth century to remind us that this is not at all the case is of great import. It is also quite correct. What the species-essence of humanity is, is thought, made manifest through consciousness. It was once only sentience, billions of years ago, as organic life separated itself from the inorganic fabric of the cosmos. It was once only instinct, when enough complexity accrued through evolutionary organicity to enact the senses protean and proprioceptive. And most recently, it was once only habit; whatever appeared to work was repeated, honed, made second nature.

            But in this very process of experiment and experience, thinking presently arose. It was, as it mostly is today, originally geared into the eminent practicality of how to practice a uniquely human life within an anonymous nature. Humans are generalists, we belong to no ecological niche, we adapt to any variable, we shun the specialization of our once closer kindred animals. Even so, thought was itself not yet present. Thinking was a thinking through, a thinking about, attending to a process or an object problem, and not a thinking-in-itself, thought for the sake of thought alone. This final aspect of consciousness as we know it is what can be called ‘meditative’ thinking. It differs from Eastern forms of meditation, wherein thinking in the Western sense is to be temporarily expunged. This more well known definition of meditation remains a healthy exercise for the mind and body alike, but it serves the futurity of our species-being only insofar as it sets up a contrast between what consciousness is when it becomes less active; outwardly more like a lower form of life – a sensory apparatus that only reacts – and inwardly perhaps more like one higher – the Gods have no need of thought as all is already known to them.

            But meditating upon an abstract problem, including the perennial ‘problem of consciousness’, an ontological puzzle, or even the ‘problem of knowledge’, an epistemological issue, is quite different than ‘meditation’ in the spiritual sense, transcendental or otherwise. It is the idea that one can have an idea that prompts the sense that I as a human being am capable of thought. Not that ‘my idea’ is prone to any singular possession. Anything we do is automatically the proof property of the species at large. Even if we tell no one, it influences our acts, our further thoughts. In a word, I am altered in my very being by having this thought, as I am created as a thrown project by having thought itself.

            Yet if thinking is not the province of the philosopher alone, why then do we have so many occasions to note its relative absence in the world? If anyone can participate, why then do we not see more interest in this regard? The most authentic challenge to thinking comes from our need to think about the world. We imagine that our ‘patch of home ground’ is indeed what is ‘closest to us’. The exhortation to ‘act locally but think globally’ is a noble one, nonetheless, it simply substitutes a smaller concern in the world for the world as a concern. Both are objects in this sense, and thus even if their scale differs, they remain quantities, things, about which we attempt to negotiate or ‘figure out’. The sense that something either works or it does not promotes a thinking that is sustainable only within the context of work, and increasingly, simple labor. Let me use the obvious contraption ‘thing-king’ to designate this kind of thought process. In thing-king, there is a beginning and an end, and both are precise enough to ingratiate a practice that may, over time, become a personal habit or yet a cultural habitus. We notice a problem, issue, challenge, or mistake. This is the start of practical thought, thinking about a thing. ‘Fixing’ the issue is the only goal. Many means may be necessary, certainly, but the end is defined at the beginning and as Heidegger’s student Arendt has cautioned, we cannot ‘justify’ separating ends and means in the trite manner of the moral chestnut simply because the ends have already delineated the means and therefore have by definition ‘justified’ them ahead of time.

            Not that this is necessarily an ethical problem pending the ends. By far most everyday challenges require no revolutionary means to achieve a desired outcome. They neither demand the radical nor the novel. They are simply part and parcel of ordinary existence and remain within a logistics of worldliness. It is in this way, even though they are deemed to be necessities of human life, that such practicalities prevent thinking from arising. That this is an authentic bracketing of thought is evidenced by the lifeworld’s insistence upon its own reproduction. We cannot think in a void. But practice – the fixing of logistical issues, the enactment of means tending toward finite goals which can be known or at least observed from a short distance – and even praxis – the sense that practical theory is itself a means to world-historical action – do not suffice, and can never suffice, for thought itself. For thinking, as opposed to thing-king, is encountered, not enacted. Its goals are undefined ahead of time, its means are diffuse and seemingly have a life of their own. Thinking is, in a word, about nothing other than thoughts and thus takes place only within the history of consciousness.

            So while it is reasonable to exclaim at this juncture that, ‘I have no time to meditate on abstractions, things that aren’t really things at all. I have to get on with it’, we must ask the question, ‘what, exactly, does getting on with things mean, suggest, imply?’ At once we have our genuine response: human life is composed chiefly of activities that from time to time need to be adjusted to practical purpose and to finite ends. Even so, the truth of this statement is only the case within a wider understanding of existence, one that includes, and indeed is originated by, our species-essential ability to think at all. Practice and praxis alike represent means only, and whatever ‘ends’ that are contained within this or that process of such thing-king are themselves but further means.

            But means to what? Meditative or contemplative thinking is its own end insofar as it is a means to itself. This may sound circular as well as pompous, but consider thinking with the understanding that thought is neither a subject alone – our thoughts are historical, factual, mythical, as well as being biographical; but then again, what is so much of our biography if not habitus made into habit? – nor is it an object – thinking is very much not a thing in the physical sense, and attempts to reduce thought to neurochemical combinations and synaptic structures only serve to place the process by which thought arises into some more precise locales. Given our human success is due to our ability to ‘think things through’, the sense that we should try to locate thought as if it were itself a thing seems counterintuitive, for our thinking mimics our wider heritage as evolutionary generalists. We are potentially unlimited as a species, even if I as an individual must meditate ‘within my limits’. This is the more profound meaning of the near and the far to be found in sudden declamations to ‘think globally, act locally’ and so on. I act and think within certain limits, many of them not my own in any individuated sense, yet I can also at least imagine thinking, if not truly acting, in a much wider way. It is that single act of imagination which allows us to encounter the essence of thinking-as-it-is.

            Yet if there is an uneasy, even somewhat suspicious relationship between practice and thought, the one still admits to the other that its practices originate in contemplative thinking. It is otherwise with the inauthentic barriers to meditative thought that our everyday world has constructed. These include the distractions of the newer lifeworld of the idolatrous thing, the fetishized commodity, but as well, the delusions of the older lifeworld’s customs and rituals, what is defined as habitus and heresy alike. Between the machine of the new and the mind of the old, human thinking is confined to a space stenochoric to the future and at once reduced to peering at a thin slice of the past. Custom represents only the most common elements of culture, no matter if this or that ritual comes once in an individual lifetime. And the technology of a culture in turn represents what is most commonly practiced by those same individuals. Both rely upon repetition, and only challenge us when the outcomes expected from them do not automatically materialize.

            Even when this is the case, ‘fixing it’ immediately becomes the end to which the means at hand are harnessed. There can be no thought outside of these circles, whether sacred or secular, whether customary or technological. But meditative thinking is neither sacred nor secular, it engages no loyalty to religion revealed or ‘civil’, and in this lies the key to our encounter with it: thinking is itself revolutionary. By this I mean that in order to engage in thinking as a species-essential gift and task, one must needs shed all loyalties to both custom and craft. One must begin to understand means and ends as artificial boundaries that impede the act of thought by reducing it to a specific point-to-point process. There is no ‘there’ to thinking, as Heidegger has implied. It is a here and now encounter with the new and with my ownmost being which is ever new. This is what is closest to us; our own being in the world as I breathe and as I am. Yes, this existence precedes an understanding of essence but it does not negate it, in the same manner as though we have historically given ourselves credit for the death of the Gods and the shattering of the illusory otherworld, does not then mean that otherness no longer exists.

            For thinking is itself other. It is other to life as we have known it, to history as it has been, to myself as I know myself and what I expect from myself. It is other to what is customary, but also to what is technical and of technique alone. It is other to the generalized otherness of the social fabric and it thus gifts us with the ongoing task of being more than we have taken ourselves to be and to once have been. The old world mind is an unthought vice of tradition alone, unchallenged and too well known to aid the human future, while the new world machine is an unthinking device which cannot know itself and thus has no future. Only human thought, meditative and contemplative, abruptly present and yet in the ever-closing presence of the future, opening us to the possibilities of consciousness in its relationship with the cosmos from which it has perhaps unexpectedly sprung, marks us as worthy of a continued existence.

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

The Ethics of the Present

                                                The Ethics of the Present

            Nothing can make us be the past: it is only a spectacle before us which is there for us to question. As the questions come from us, the answers in principle cannot exhaust historical reality, since it does not depend on them for existence. (Merleau-Ponty 1973:10 [1955]).

            This ‘strange object which is ourselves’ is at once a scientific object – History ‘proper’ as a discourse and as a study – and also an objectification – a shifting ground lensed through ideology or even personal memory. We as present-day human beings can object to it, and in the ‘confrontation with the tradition’ this is in fact our collective duty, and yet we are, as Marx famously noted, subject to it. We do ‘make our own history’, and yet not entirely as we choose. Increasingly, so it appears, we often find ourselves unable to raise a metaphoric finger against the ‘forces of history’, since the present is, in this sense, only the sum total of the weight of effects which emanate yet from what was supposed to be ‘only’ the past. If we do not take the present to be either presence in the immanential sense of being-there and just there, just now, or as the presenting of the moment as some kind of disconnected exclamation of Being-present, then the present as the ongoingness of history does indeed carry all of this said weight around within it and about it. History is ourselves precisely for the reason that we ourselves are nothing other than our own respective histories, and History but a Gestalt of a gestalt.

            To think through the veil of history is part of the confrontation with what we can know of the tradition, what has come before us and yet remains within us; the unthought aspect of selfhood and at the same time also the temporally conscious sense of thrownness. This ‘veil’ is present both by the fact that much of actual human history remains unknown, and a portion of that – just so, we also do not know which proportion – forever unknowable. And it is a justifiable shock to realize how recent this other portion reaches. Lost films are a simple case in point. Much of the cinematic archive has been destroyed, irreplaceably, mainly because of the material upon which it was first recorded. In 1917, for example, an important suffragette documentary entitled ‘Birth Control’, by Margaret Sanger, was censored and banned before general release, given its then radical contention that woman must have complete control over their reproductive rights in order for them to take their place as fully human beings, both politically and existentially. No copies of this film are known to exist today; it is categorized as a ‘lost’ film. What is also lost for us is the ability to gauge the amount of maturity we have gained with regard to such a question in the intervening century. Sometimes, it seems, not much. In many regions, even within modern states, women’s reproductive rights are questioned, limited, stigmatized, denuded or co-opted. We have already noted that bio-power is certainly a factor. But the rationalizations given forth in the effort to continue to subject women to external control, and object to women’s bodies as inherently uncontrollable, rest only in a past which has yet to be fully confronted.

            Hence the great import of doing just that. We must first maintain the distinction between the ideal types analytic brought to the fore by Weber and the sense that we have living ideals, the way we would live if we could, the ‘blue sky’ of corporate forecasting, the everyday Nirvana of the ‘perfect family’ or the ‘well-adjusted child’ etc.. In Weber’s methodology, an ideal type is a non-historical model, constructed from aspects of real world cases that betray a pattern. Ideal types are not so much simulacra nor even reifications, but tend more to being expressions of the human desire to attain absolutes. Indeed, Weber’s Wertrationales Handeln – ‘rational action directed to an absolute value’ – speaks clearly of this orientation. The study of history as History also has this tendency, since, as Merleau-Ponty noted, it is we who are asking the questions of ourselves. The fact that we have progressed to the point of understanding this relation is a noteworthy first step and also a recent one, beginning with Vico in 1725. If we have kept close to our hearts the sense that we can live in an ‘ideal’ way, or even that there should be ideals at all – in James, of course, we have the ‘saint’ as a standard by which the rest of us could judge our own behaviors – it is due to the concurrent human situatedness of being perennially finite and increasingly discrete, the living equivalent of a Gaussian curve, perhaps. Beneath the center of such a distribution live the ideals of the day to day, those whose normative sensibilities and aspirations betray nothing of the larger historical apparatus around which we are encompassed, but also through which we can clamber up to the top for another point of view, a vista which would remain unknown to us if we did not first learn about the scaffolding underpinning it. The casual expression, ‘standing on the shoulders of history’, speaks not only to the sense that what is holding us up is not only not part of we ourselves, though we might mimic it in microcosm, but is also greater than ourselves. So much greater, in fact, that we must again confront the fact that much of it, perhaps most of it, will remain unknowable.

            But not unthinkable. This is the second distinction we must keep in mind, that between what cannot ever be known and that which, in spite of its mysterious or partial quality, can yet be imagined and thence thought through. What we need to avoid is the pitfall of all ideal types analysis, and that is the disconnect it makes between the pattern and the case, the model and the lived time of this or that social reality. Idealism in general is suggestive of this disconnect, and even if the superordinate benefit it brings to the analytic mindset is that of abstracted depth, leitmotif, deep structure or grammar, archiphonemic apse, or phenomenological ground, the ‘intuition of essence’, or even ‘simple’ ontology, its corresponding weakness includes a departure from lived time, and thus from Dasein itself. Abstraction in the study of history is also self-limiting in another manner: “In a word, we might say that it makes the specificity of ideological or religious organizations unthinkable. It transforms them into ‘representations’, or into ‘reflections’ of social structures. Put otherwise, it eliminates them as real factors of history: they become additions and secondary effects, precious only insofar as, through their transparency, they shed light on what instigated them.” (De Certeau 1988:119 [1975], italics the text’s). As persons, we live in a specific manner which at once, even if it is not analyzed in any objective way – ‘common sense’ reality and that scientific are also disconnected from one another in both worldview and purpose – must remain thinkable for us, and not its opposite. Life, in another word, must be both doable and thinkable; it must be able to be lived, whatever its depths of misery or blisses of joy that happen to be contained within its pulsing embrace, and what is bracketed or put to the side as ‘secondary’ or ‘additional’ is the very opposite of what ideal types analysis dockets and transcends.

            We are given to placing aside abstraction in day to day life not because we do not aspire to philosophy or because we might imagine ‘thought’, or yet the history of thought or consciousness, to be somehow beyond us, but rather because we already know what either needs to be known to do something, or we know where to look to find out. It is not the paucity of the intellect in the mundane sphere that limits human action, it is instead the list of questions that are liable to be asked. It is in the vested and invested interest of social institutions to both manufacture such lists and limit them, sometimes stringently, in order to reproduce themselves, which is ultimately the absolute value of rational organizations as Weber has discussed. If it is the case that such values and the means to attain them in principle occupy radically different spaces – the usual analogy of choosing amongst a number of closed doors and passing through this or that one – characterizing rational action directed to a finite goal, or Zweckrationales Handeln – in contrast with the metaphor of the fixed point in the heavens which can direct my action but in fact cannot itself be attained – the ‘absoluteness’ of such a value may well contain its own absolution but this as well cannot be experienced by me – then it is equally the case that historical institutions that do in fact exist or did exist are possessed of an absolute that, in a brilliant if oft disingenuous maneuver, turns the firmament of values into means.

            This is not a confrontation with tradition but rather a manipulation of it, but if we consider these two alternatives, it is clear that for social institutions, if the goal is simple reproduction and not even growth – this is characteristic of bureaucracies proper in Weber more so than say, mere for-profit companies, for instance, or ideologies over against religions, in general – manipulation is the correct choice. Not so for persons. For the individual, struck with having to both choose a door or two or three over the mortal cycle of one’s ability to so choose, and yet also being aware, even sometimes blinded by, that light hung up in the sky above, manipulating the light to show what is behind the door is clearly not an option. Instead, the groundwork for attaining different perspectives on the light from below is characteristic of our historical condition. It would appear at first, that any absolute value would forever be in the same relative position to its perceiver, but this is true only of unquestioning belief. Faith is shaken by perspective, knowledge amended, wisdom acquired. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the history that can be known is that the nature of the light itself alters over time, sometimes radically so.

            Even so, there is another horizon that in our contemporary world situation both attracts and repels us. It contains the questions both addressing ‘why have a light at all?’ and ‘what if the light is my reflection, what if I myself am the light?” in the same way that we have come to know ourselves as the ‘strange object’ of history. The first question is that borne on the critiques of the enlightenment, the key differences between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the history of modern thought. In a sense, these two questions are obverses of the same post-deistic coin; one side heralds the successor figure, humanity, the other is simply blank. Perhaps we are to imagine crossing over from one to the other, for as Nietzsche proverbially remarks, with the death of god the death of Man becomes imminent. Or it may be that what human light there is in the world develops itself into a model for its own action, through ethics and reflection both. If we are our own light, and if this thence becomes our absolute value, then such a being must desist in imagining that this light shines more upon the one than the many, we more than they, or yet the meek more than the magnanimous. If the light is a mere reflection or refraction of Dasein’s action in the world – perhaps this is the reason why it appears to follow us around so closely, since we are always where we are in some basic sense – then it can still serve as an inspiration as well as a check to note if we are still amongst the living, still alive and making our own history within either the confines of a tradition not confronted or oblique to the past, the present as a parallax and not as a mere reproduction. If the absolute value of modernity is individual freedom, then it befalls to each of us our own confrontation with every ounce of that historical weight which tethers us yet beneath the light of the world as it is.

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