The Quest of the Question

The Quest of the Question (Well, you asked)

                                    Greater glory in the sun,

                                    An evening chill upon the air,

                                    Bid imagination run

                                    Much on the Great Questioner;

                                    What He can question, what if questioned I

                                    Can with fitting confidence reply.

W.B. Yeats (1928)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Self-Loathing

On Self-Loathing (Despicable Me)

            My parents were from a generation wherein it was the norm to project vicariously upon their children. In my case, each wanted their only son to pursue the vocation they themselves missed out upon, also a commonplace filial trope. For my mother, music was the dream. Her own parents, hailing from the late 19th century, forbid it and, at seventeen, steered her into secretary school. She did emerge much later to sing in a university chorus and study music, as well as teach ESL, but she had been destined for far more. Likewise, my father, who dreamed of becoming an architect. The only thing he shared with Hitler, mind you, he left home at the same age of seventeen and joined the RCN, fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic. But though I showed early promise in both music and architecture, and maintain to this day a love for the one and a fond interest in the latter, my own path took me far from anything either of my parents could ever have imagined. At first, with my mother passed, my father questioned academics, and then for the next two decades fostered an utter disdain for it, and secondarily, if not only by implication, myself within it. It was only in 2009, four years before he himself passed, that he began to see some merit in myself as a thinker, after reading my 2009b Becoming a Modest Society. That was my seventh book and I can now hardly recall its themes. But on his deathbed, he was engrossed in my 2013b, We Other Nazis, leaving it incomplete. I was and remain grateful for his change of heart, even though, perhaps ironically, perhaps equally fittingly, I have of late adopted his own attitude toward the academy and those within its faux ivory tusks.

            Is this a way to repay him for his belated loyalty? Most of us, as children, wish to please our parents, make them proud of us, even to point of sycophancy. And though outright mimicry is only for the young child, it is nevertheless a sign of an enduring sensitivity to the idea that one’s parents must be on one’s side no matter what, and perhaps also vice-versa. But then there is a reactive aspect found in adolescence which is the more profound. Necessary for becoming who we are – that is, not one’s parents after all – youth is a time of tension and experimentation. Passion rules the day, and, if one is lucky enough, the night as well. Yet this incipient individuation is also a delay mechanism. A delay which can solidify itself into a decoy. For adulthood, the developmental precursor to mature being meant in the hermeneutic sense of the phrase, is the proving ground for my newly minted selfhood. Casually, we may to ourselves, ‘do I really have what it takes to do what I want to do with my life?’. This question, however informal, is both pregnant with maturity and perspective but also unanswerable as stated and also due to the timing of when it is asked. Only by living on, certainly for a number of decades, can any response be forthcoming. There are many late bloomers even at the highest of cultural levels. Tom Thomson in painting, Anton Bruckner in music, and even less conspicuous age relative, myself at around the same age as a writer. My first book was published only when I was 37 years old, back in 2003. Fifty-nine books later I still do not have a sure answer to that question of worthiness. But to the related query of worth, at least, I do.

            Or I like to think so. For to be a philosopher in a time of polar unthought, as cold and as oppositional as the Weberian term implies, is at best a lonely job. There will be few readers, almost no recognition. And as we humans are sourced very much in the looking glass self as well as guided, even goaded on by the need for community, the lack thereof promotes a gnawing doubt, one that can easily slide into the despondent pool of self-loathing. True to say that the pilgrim walks on by himself and in our godless and finite world, also for himself. Indeed, the very idea of the pilgrimage has been altered at both beginning and end, since we fall into it without the sense of calling, divine or otherwise, and we also recognize that there is no terminus, no Santiago de Compostela but rather, for some, the effort of becoming part of the sainted compost of the history of ideas. Composing this, then composting it in yet another essay collection, might give some bland zest to the sense that it is force of habit alone which generates reflection and perhaps yet self-reflection. No matter, we tell ourselves, for ‘those who have ears shall hear’.

            This Nietzschean poise, which worked well for his books but not at all as well for he himself, is something of a theatre. A cultured autism, a high-minded affect, a transcendental but still shamanic trickery, the critical essayist, falling as he does within the panorama of philosophical work but taking on a dangerous dilettantism even so, is ever at risk that his reasoned loathing of the social world should turn upon himself, no matter what one’s parents might have thought either way. The critic is himself problematic, the wavering target of Shaw’s sneering snarkery, for instance, for the mere critic is a mere eunuch of course. And even if, contra a related epigram, teaching is also ‘doing’ of a sort, in Shaw’s own time his was a much more apt remark than one hopes it is in ours. Even so, when I made the shift from teaching to writing, which I never thought I would, I began to see something through his narrow glance: I have been fortunate that I have also been able to do, and not merely critique.

            Such doings, however. I try to love my work, though I never go back and read my scholarly titles and only read my fiction with others; victims, perchance. But I do understand if someone were to attempt to read either, they might well imagine on the one hand, that the philosopher is unable to communicate his genius widely enough, and the fiction writer is at best, a sociopath. Does my fiction impinge upon my non-fiction? Is my fiction too realistic to bear because of the opposite influence? Or are both merely the by-product of what could have been? For truth be told, I have wasted so much time chasing girls and flirting with addiction that my output would likely be twice that extant today. And surely, one tells oneself, the author with 120 titles could not be so summarily ignored. I am but the author of my own premature literary grave, its stone bearing the longest epitaph in human history.

            This evaluative sensibility is ancient, though hardly primordial, for human consciousness. In the West, it is Horus who first judges the relative weight of one’s acts versus that of the gifts of one’s soul. The much later Christian incarnation of this same idea has our ethical worth measured by how close we approach the moral ideals of the world system itself. It is interesting to note that though Christianity’s revolutionary ethics on the ground promote the gradual development of the individual as her own person along with the subjectivity that defines the personal, its evaluatory mode suggests the very opposite: that the highest human attainment is the same for all. By contrast, the Egyptian original was individuated in its afterlife, even though the concept of the person, and the ‘much-vaunted’ modernist subjectivity, to nod to Nietzsche once again, was absent in that society. But though we owe much to both belief systems, and from afar, they could be seen as glosses upon one another and not only in historical sequence, Christianity is itself unfairly blamed for the disdain not only of the body, but also for the mind and spirit alike. Our own latter-day evangelists are in the main, anti-intellectual at best, as well as shunning the fuller intimacies of the body, electric or even Electraic, if you will. Their spirits too await their collective freedom, perhaps to be had at the expense of the rest of us in some Armageddon made real. This is clearly not our species destiny in any noble sense, and we might well rise to fight against its inertia. And this, by the way, is a major theme of my fictional work, just in case the casual reader mistakes it for something else.

            But however over-ripe is the evangelical obsession with Pauline anxiety, we ourselves are to blame for having adopted too readily the wider Western neurosis of self-loathing. Pre-dating Christianity by far, the Greeks were convinced that their own age was lesser, part of a devolution of culture, and not its Victorian opposite. Hope was, for them, a resident evil, the only thing that did not escape Pandora’s Box. Yes, one can get one’s hopes up and be disappointed. A hundred casual lines, oft repeated in popular song, attest to this lingering fear of hapless harm; ‘hopes are dashed’, ‘hope goes up in smoke’, and the like. And for the Egyptians, insofar as we can know of their perduringly murky doings – were they really reanimating ex-human drones inside their giant pyramidal Tesla batteries? – it seems one rather blindly walked forward onto the scales of Horus with only then finding out if one’s acts were of equal measure to one’s gifts.

            I feel their pain. The Egyptian in me worries I have not measured up to my potential. But what is my potential? What is anyone’s? The Greek in me mourns the loss of youth, the ‘good old days’ leitmotif that was never true and that of course animates the false faith of the evangelical as well as that of the more benign nostalgia buffs of all stripes and hues. And the Christian in me steps forward with some trepidation, doubting the future itself and for itself, which in turn acts as a mechanism of self-sabotage both for the person and for the culture as a whole. But as a person, no matter how despairingly weighty this combination of dead historical hands might be, I have in modernity a different kind of agency. What should bear down upon me is not so much an archaic world system, but the lack of insight and experience which, over the life course thus far, has led me to make some impoverished choices. At the same time, this very knowing allows me to do differently. Let me then quote from volume one of Queen of Hearts, andhere’s to it:

            The Unpolished edge of futurity will draw our collective blood.

            If it must be spilled then let the one who holds the sword be a visionary,

            and not a reactionary.

            Let her raven eyes be the windows of our collective soul.

            Let her joyous judgment be the compassion of our call to conscience.

            Let her unknowing be but innocence and never ignorance.

            Let her knowing become the working wisdom of light before heat.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 60 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Holus Bogus

 Holus Bogus (The ‘all’ is a fraud)

            The call to the whole is the anathema of the call to conscience. Associated with Das Man in Heidegger, at the very best it collectivizes care, allowing each Dasein the same shadow of a more general entanglement. For to be distracted by this or that, or by this person or that person in the anonymous ‘open space of the public’ is something which is alongside Dasein’s own being-present. But what if one cannot find egress, at all, from an omnipresent non-being which takes for itself the worlding of the world? It is the this situation which deprives us of our situatedness, mine ownmost life, if you will. Just as does the fact alone deprave facticity, belief unmake the one who wills, and hexis make a mockery of praxis, so too does the all overtake Dasein’s ownmost; what is closest to us takes on the guise of only what is nearest. My thrownness could thence be anywhere, for all has been made the same thing by the all. I am no longer myself, but nor am I an other who, as her own Dasein, entails meaningfulness face to face with mine own. Heidegger never fails to use this phrase, ‘face to face’, common enough but now placed in a serious, though not fatal, confrontation with both itself and with the other. But if all are the same thing, no such perspective can be had. And yet I too can speak for you, for I and thou now also have been collapsed in a false dialectic. This is the ontology of the evil of evil.

            Ricoeur famously enjoins us to understand the evil of evil as ‘fraudulency in the work of totalization’. His examples are the church and the state, as these are institutions the humankind which present themselves as the all in all, and demand not merely our obedience but also our worship. It would seem as well the singular selfhood, developed in direct contraposition to both, and at the very moment the state had overtaken the church in the historical position of and as ‘the all’, is as well at risk for a similar fraudulency. Simmel notes more than once that while we do change over the life course, and even our memory cannot vouchsafe the singular consistency of any one life, let alone on behalf of others, nevertheless we do continue to exist as a being who has made its own history over against History proper, and carved out some minute niche of ‘personal’ culture over against the tradition. More profoundly, each of us is tasked with confronting that same tradition, in an hermeneutic dialectic which does not fall for the fraud of the all. We are at once the apex of several existential dialectics: 1. Self and other uplifted into mine ownmost being; 2. Memory and anticipation uplifted into the living present; 3. History and Zeitgeist synthesized by presence ‘itself’; 4. Habit and improvisation made into innovation; 5. The waking self and the unconscious coming together as a contemporaneous consciousness; 6. Anxiety and the call to conscience metastasizing themselves into Sorgeheit; 7. Reason and imagination combining in a unique intelligence, human consciousness itself, and so on. Let us take each of these, briefly, in turn.

            1. I am not the all in all, neither by myself nor, and of especial caution in our time, with others seen as ‘the’ others. On the one hand, I must negotiate the generalized other, both as its willing vehicle – ‘voluntarily’ in Weber’s sense of social cohesion – but as well as an individuated agent sometimes opposed to it, through the development of an ethics based upon personal experience but also an understanding of the looking glass self; how I imagine others perceive me. In order to accomplish each of these reflexive tasks, I must eschew thinking of myself as only what I have previously believed to be mine ownmost, or my closest-to-hand.

            2. Memory knows the past more precisely than can anticipation know the future, but it may not always be as forthright. For the future is unknown in an open manner, and memory can be standoffish pending my acts or their absence. ‘Memory yields to pride’, Nietzsche cautions, but surely not in all cases. Sometimes the two are co-present, as when we are proud of something we have done or something we have avoided doing. Elsewise we may be unsure of the outcome of an act, as its playing out remains ongoing, so neither pride nor memory can grasp complete hold over what is nonetheless, past, and thus past redux. Anticipation is limited, though not shuttered, by prior events; we do not tend to ‘unexpect the expected’, as anyone undertaking critique must do. The living present is just that; a kind of amalgam of partial memory – both biased and incomplete – and only an incipient openness lensed through the anticipatory stance, or instanciation.

            3. Beyond ourselves, but nevertheless both perceived and indeed endured, are the ‘times’ themselves. At once the moment ‘in’ history as well as the cultural atmosphere which can both enlighten and shroud such a moment, we are inside the manifolds of what has been bequeathed to us as a culture, while at the same time once again coming face to face with the ‘spirit of the age’. How aged, how spirited, cannot be decided on my own, without the syntagmatic temporality that belies the Now and yet also generates it more or less continuously, as Husserl speaks of in his densely parsed analysis of ‘internal time consciousness’.

            4. Akin to Zeitgeist itself, habitus rests beyond our individual vision and indeed our control. It is not constructed of a hundred personal habits, but rather imposes itself upon us as a kind of habituation. Even so, force of habit, so-called, cannot make its way against all comers. The unexpected, or at least, less predicted, does happen from time to time. In this, we are reminded of our fuller humanity as generalists and improvisers. The great skill of adaptation sees us through time and again. Of course, there is always the next experiment, both in discourse and in life. As improvisers we are closer to Dasein’s authentic being-in, but as mere habituants, we have fallen within a specifically fraudulent entanglement.

            5. Contemporaneity means more than mere coincidence. We are yet unsure of the chronology of specific sequences of Traumdeutung. Most will agree that dreaming, when recalled at all, is often simply a caution about physiological functions which have, over the course of sleep, become imminent and thus must wake us in order to be solved in conscious action. Similarly, though more of a resolution, anxiousness or other forms of concern – though yet not, whilst remaining unconscious, concernful being – requires of us a just as conscious, though much less automatic or habitual, action, in order to come to some sort of self-understanding, either about what it is we are actually concerned about, or more deeply, and thus more analytically, some aspect of our character that is awry. But the timing of these processes, from the metaphoric dream-state to the pragmatic waking act, varies greatly. The so-called ‘recurring’ dream suggests a pressing engagement with one’s past, for instance, and perhaps precisely due to the fact that we are replaying personal interactions which befit only the past, and never the present let alone the future. The unconscious is characteristically and regularly offended by such prolapsed inaction on our parts. To be truly contemporary, the self must unite the awkwardly communicated and even absurdly theatricalized insights of the unconscious with a reflective and reasoned Selbstverstandnis.

            6. Concernful being, once present, in its turn is the summit of care and anxiety, taking the most fruitful elements of both in their specific instances and even instants – this ‘instant instance’ is for the phenomenologist a sign of instanciation – that have as their hallmark an insistence about them, impresses us with how much concern they can generate on our part in response to them. These are no mere phobias, nor will they be too liable to repression, becoming neurotic, unless we summarily ignore all instances of the call to conscience, which very few of us truly do. Dasein’s ethical compass does not misdirect, but it does require us to read it off, much as does a dream remembered. The advantage of anxiety over dreams is that it can take hold of us fully, without undue interpretation or dramaturgical analysis, and while we are awake. Of course, to be awake and ‘awakened’ are sometimes two different things and not only this, as well often opposed to one another, for the normative living-on within that which is closest to us and that which is alongside of us often gets in the way of reflective, fully conscious, understanding. Selfhood in its authentic moment is thus also charged with calling a halt to the quotidian, as an immediate and compassionate response to the call of conscience itself.

            7. Finally, we have elsewhere already said much about the unique, if unquiet, confluence of human reason and human imagination. Akin to memory and anticipation, reason is reflective upon experience, and thus mostly concerns what is referred to as the past, or more simply, as ‘past’, and done with. But only in the unreasoned sense is this past complete. We reopen it, in almost cliché fashion, and it becomes part of the living present, even spilling itself onto the opening space of the futural, enacting part of what we can understand Husserl examining as the present process of the future in its making, or its ‘futurity’. Selfhood, ‘sovereign’ in its ideal sense, apart from any ‘evil of evil’, reaches reasoned reflection while trailing imaginative alternatives and ‘projects of action’ which, in their turn push that same self to further experience and thence reflection both. Here, more than at any of the other dialectical apexes, I am closest to the species-being or ‘species essence’.

            But even at this point, I am not the all, not ‘whole’, and not merely another within the whole. These seven dialectics, and there are presumably a few others to be noted, prevent any sense that I can be fully aware of each of their dynamics and for all occasions and experiences that I will have over the life course. Simmel’s late holism of a human life is to be regarded more as a rubric – however I shall change, I am yet, in the presence of the present-being, still myself, still my self – and not as an existential synthesis. If we are able and willing to unmask the fraudulent totality in institutions, however historical and vast, then we should also take the same phenomenological lens to our own beings. The self-examined life is as it stands very much worthy of life; it is we who must attain the same marque as is already and always imbedded in the human project itself.

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

Identity Fetishism

Identity Fetishism (the objectification of echoism)

            In over-identifying with the generalized other, the echoist sacrifices at first self-interest, as does the traditional altruist, but also thence the very self, if the pursuit of the other’s needs and desires overcomes the one who so pursues. The echoist is commonly seen as the figure who expresses personality traits opposite to that of the narcissist, though it is not correct to assume that this latter always acts in their own best interest. The narcissist is, after all, blinded by his own blind loyalty not to the self as he actually is, but to an idealized selfhood into which he has placed a fallible reality. The echoist, on her part, denies that the self either has needs at all, or, more usually, places these needs below those claimed by the other, giving them a lesser value. The danger for psychology as a discourse when using these Greek ethical constructions is that, aside from their original caveat against extremities – the golden mean or moderation in all things was a Greek mantra – that the best kind of personality holds within it a balance of self and other, which is a mere technical manner of stating that a neo-Christian selfhood is the newer ideal. Not the Christian in the original, and more radical sense, for the neighbor figure is after all the ultimate altruist. He is, as I have stated elsewhere, simply the libertine of compassion.

            Not so the ‘balanced’ self, which identifies with the generalized other as if this abstract and very much collective presence is expressed in now this individual before me, now that. Such a middle road, the fairway between La Scylla of the echoist and the Charybdis of the narcissist, and thus the fair way to adjudicate between one’s own needs and those of the other or others, always as well denies the selfhood as it is. It is a personalized way of doing the same to the world as it is. For in gifting oneself to the other, we do generally gain our own desires, be they having to do with public acclaim, a sense of personal vindication, a veneer of the virtuous, or being a model citizen, in no order and perhaps also in toto. Augustine is himself cautious about self-sacrifice, not due to Jesus becoming the Christ through so enacting it, but rather because for lesser beings, it would be a challenge to sort out one’s intents. Are we truly selfless in our actions? Did we actually put the other before ourselves? Do we rather seek to become an echo of the savior; to ‘borrow status’, to use a sociological turn of phrase.

            The narcissist seeks all such things, and in spades. In this, he is by far the easier to identify, and perhaps somewhat perversely, to identity with as well. He is unsure of his own person and thus desires to build around it a persona, the bastion against self-doubt constructed of that same anxious architecture. A persona is, however, still a more authentic expression of the lack of selfhood than is the fullest leap into the generalized other. A persona, though a mask, yet must be carried by its wearer. Not so otherness, of course, for it is irruptive, if rare, and especially in modernity. Not so the Other, capital ‘O’, which is alien and we would suggest, generally incomprehensible even if fully present to our senses bemused. But the case is different when it comes to echoism. This otherness, generalized in G.H. Mead’s sense that one has by a certain age internalized social norms and is able to exemplify them in one’s day to day or quotidian conduct – something which the over-identification with specific guises of the generalized other ironically allows one as a person, and even as a citizen, to forego – is not taken on as one does a costume of oneself, as in narcissism, but is rather slipped bodily into as if one were able to simply up and transfer one’s being into a ready-made vessel. Anyone who has adopted for themselves a form of identity politics has indulged in this fantasy.

            This is why one might suggest that there has been an objectification of echoism. The classic echoist, whom one might recognize casually as a ‘doormat’ or even a masochist, gears herself into the needs of singular others, usually serially and repetitively. It is these persons who are at most risk for domestic abuse, for example. The echoist internalizes the sense that she is of little value, or that her only value is in being a servant of another, aggrandizing his needs if he has no merit, or, if authentic value is present, then aiding his genuine quest. Either way, the echoist denies the self. It is a pressing weakness of the genius that he demands an echo; first from a person, then a community, and thence from the world itself. When Mahler consulted Freud in the Netherlands in 1910, the second edition of The Interpretation of Dreams had recently appeared and its author was by then as world-famous as was the celebrity composer and conductor. Aside from uttering the expected ‘what a meeting of giants, wish I could have been there’, we can more seriously remind ourselves that no archaeologies of selfhood, no high-flying hermeneutics, no ambitious analyses were involved. No, Freud simply told Mahler that he was being a prick, hmm. For Mahler’s marriage had been shipwrecked by his demand that Alma, once the hottest young woman in Vienna and an aspiring composer in her own right, should utterly sacrifice her own needs and desires to his superior gifts. And as challenging as it would be to compete with a Mahler, this was manifestly not what Alma was trying in any case to do. Freud told Mahler to instead aid his estranged wife’s quest, and ‘who better to do it’, for Pete’s sakes. More deeply and consistently, to take his mate’s needs as seriously as he took his own. Note to self, and dear reader.

            Alma was neither echoist nor narcissist. But then again, neither was her husband. So, what comes out of this historical vignette is both an illustration of the problem of identifying just exactly where our selfhood lies, especially in relation to others, and also, by extension, where might we find the place or the space wherein our best self resides? For many today, these questions are too challenging to confront in any authentic manner. Hence the mass objectification of echoism as a parallax to the much more individuated construction of a persona. Statements such as ‘I am a person of color, a trans-person, a proud boy, a Christian “first”, a liberal, a conservative, a survivor of the residential schools, a Holocaust survivor, an abuse victim, a revolutionary, a woman, a man’ and a myriad of others, if held to be front and center in even casual conversation and in one’s political opinions, if taken to be the defining characteristic of one’s selfhood, are all decoys, meant to help one avoid the anguish of being a self, and short-circuiting the essential relation between anxiety and personhood. With all the patent irony of modernism, it is psychotherapy itself which plays upon these projections. And even if we place our faith in the analytic process – which involves a gradual unmasking of persona in order to confront the authentic self in all of its patently fragile mortality – we must, in the end, also abandon the wider conception of faith as well.

            But what of the second term in our title? Speaking of faith, the fetish item, ethnographically, contained the Mana of some otherwise amorphous and animistic force. It might be the famed Churinga stones of the Australians, it might be the disembodied artifacts pinned into the shaman’s mesa in Mexico, or yet the ‘figurines of the Virgin Mary’, to borrow from King Crimson. Marx lights upon this conception and realizes that in capital, it is the commodity which now is seen as ‘Mannic’, excuse the obvious pun. Part of the object’s ‘surplus’, indirectly linked to the broader economic conception of surplus value, lies in its ability to transfer the consumer’s desire by objectifying it. The ‘finest’ marques, such as Ferrari, have mastered not the marketing of self-indulgence, but rather the ability to place the person in intimate association with the thing, as if the driver of a legendary auto is direct kindred with the shaman and their traditional fetish. Certainly, when I drove an expensive Jaguar just for fun, I felt a kind of augmented power, as if the prosthetic was mimicking an extramundane quality, something that the shaman’s tried and true trickery also mimicked. I also felt that the big cat was a mere extension of myself, and not just of my body, but rather of my very being.

            And this is what the idolaters of identity also seek. In their absence of selfhood, they desire to deny their very existence as human beings first, as historical beings, as beings endowed, by evolution or otherwise, with both reason and imagination, and as cleaving to a very much mutable ‘human nature’ which is not, and has never been, one thing, let alone the one thing they have, like a long line of crucified simulacra, hung themselves upon.

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

The Technical and the Ethical

The Technical and the Ethical (what they share, and what they don’t)

            It is commonplace to hear that our morality has not ‘kept up’ with our technology, or that the latter proceeds at a more ‘rapid’ pace than the former. But seen from the perspective of action in the world, morality and technology occupy the same relative place to what is technical, or involves technique, and what is ethical; morality in action or conscience enacted. Both morality and technology proceed from our Promethean humanity. We require external prosthetics, from the simplest of wooden and stone tools of our distant ancestors to the quantum accelerators of our own day, in order to make a culture at all or indeed to survive the night. The domestication of fire was key to these regards. Morality is an idealized prosthetic, an extension of our mental life into the world, just as technology extends the capacities of our bodily form. It is plausible that our very idea of ‘embodiment’, a theological term but also one phenomenological, originates in this early distinction between our physical and mental capabilities and endurances. For to feel ensconced in a material vehicle as something other than is the world might well play on an ancestral sensibility brought about by that very duet of prosthetic extensions; I am more than I seem to be.

            Is this ‘more’ defined only by our evolving extensions, or might it also be the case that embodiment is of the essence of things in this matter; that I have not only made myself into a ‘more’ in the life I know and share with other human beings, but that I am also to be more, perhaps in a further life, or, to extend the logic of extension itself, a further part of this life? Conceptions of the afterlife, in their earliest form, saw it as a mere transition between earthly lives, a kind of eternal recurrence, not necessarily of the exact same thing, as in Nietzsche’s radically life-affirming formulation, but simply as another round of something similar; similar, especially in social contract cultures wherein this earliest idea of existential extension arises. Even with rudimentary social stratification, political power, and the presence of consistent material surplus, this first afterlife is not altered. What we observe is an inclining difference in burial rituals rather than the abandonment of the rites of passage in general. But with the advent of sedentary mass cultures we do see the idea that some have different destinies in the afterlife than others. Yet even here, the essence of the purpose of the afterlife, though altered from its primordial recurrence theme, remains consistent for all who thus enter it; some kind of evaluation is at stake, and that of one’s conscience and not one’s essence.

            By this point, an idea that must have been percolating within our ancestral breast for eons has appeared bodily in the world: the sense that embodiment as a locus for technological and moral extensions has a purpose beyond itself. Not only is life to be extended, but so also is its meaning. In this, we humans are gifted with the fuller sense of the Promethean ethic. Indeed, it was not so much the ability to live in ignorance of our own deaths as did the Gods themselves, though for us as a limited period, that riled the Greek pantheon, but rather that mortal life should have a meaning beyond itself. And this idea, implicated in the gift of the demigod, essentially annulled the difference between Gods and humans; both had now indefinite existences from which purpose and meaningfulness might be gleaned. Worse still, from the divine perspective at least, was that meaning itself for an omniscient and omnipotent being was not truly relevant, or at the very least, occurred in whole cloth as with everything else such a being would bring into being with its own presence. For us, rather, making meaning as we go along, though long the order of the quotidian day, abruptly upshifted itself into the essence of life, the very reason that we lived at all.

            What fills the conceptual as well as experiential gaps between technology and morality and actual human life in the world is, respectively, technique and ethics, the technical and the ethical. What they share is their fundamentally ad hoc basis: both technique and ethics responds to a specific circumstance, as often as not unpredicted or at least, unexpected. And just as there is not a one-to-one correspondence between morality and ethics – the idea that the former contains timeless principles as ideals and the latter is the space of real-time action wherein what is good in one case might not be in the next, and so on – so there is no levels-identity relation between technology, an umbrella term for anything prosthetic in culture, and technique, the actual use of tools and as well the skills involved in the construction thereof. Ethics is not morality simply brought down to earth, but rather moral ideas enacted and thus modified in the world on an ongoing basis. If such an image rapidly becomes blurred, we understand that ‘life is vague’, as Gadamer sagely notes, though it sounds like a mere truism and might even contain a nascent sense that ‘this life’ is vague when compared to some other life. Just so, the very ad hoc character of human life – we are constantly faced with differing circumstance and indeed, the very sense that life is mostly circumstantial both in action and in essence; we often meet our mates by chance, we do not ask to be born, etc. – forces upon us a reckoning: if our extensory apparatus seeks to ameliorate the chance quality of existence, if our extended sensibilities based upon prior experience purposes itself as the assuagement of our limited conscience  – conscience can no more predict the future with due certainty than can technique itself – then might it be the case that because we our aware of ideals in the first place, that there is another kind or form of life within which such ideals actually exist?

            This speculation should be familiar from Peter Berger’s 1967 argument concerning the possible reality of the afterlife, whatever its culturally defined character. It has its germ in James’ legendary Gifford lectures of 1901, wherein ‘the reality of the unseen’ is of great moment in the career of belief. Not just this, but as well, and rather more darkly, ‘the sacrifice of the intellect’, must also be had if one is to authentically adopt a religious suasion. At some point, reflection must cease, reason give itself away, in order for faith alone to carry the day. The idea that due to our ability to at least imagine an ideal way of life, which at once does away with the need for both the technical and the ethical, is suggestive of ‘another’ world or yet an otherworld where the very idea of the ideal is also moribund. We do not of course reiterate any of this argument here. For us, ideals arise through the human ability to make history; though ad hoc in its action, life remains to be lived by a being who is possessed of both memory and anticipation; two sibling, if contrasting, phenomenological dispositions of Dasein. Because of this, we are able to say to ourselves, ‘well, that was different, but it reminds me of the time when I…’ and such-like. Or, by way of comparison, ‘I have never experienced anything the like…’. All culture, all history, is only possible by way of the constant remarking upon the difference between what is similar and what is contrasting, and indeed how and by how much such experiences do in fact contrast. Technique is not only technology in use but also the reflexive process through which the former is modified by having become part of a human life; for now, technology has no life of its own. Ethics, rather, is not only morality lensed by action in the world but is as well its own domain, and this is the point at which the technical and the ethical part ways.

            For what they do not share with one another is autonomous form and thence formulation. The technical, the realm of technique alone, is always enthralled to the task at hand. It cannot compare itself to its ideal. One does hear, ‘well, if all other things had been equal, this would have worked’. Applied scientists, who should be wiser than all of this, are often the source of this plaintiff. But one also hears another refrain, one that only partially quotes the original source, and that is ‘for all action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Yes, ‘in a closed system’, as the actual text concludes. Human life, history, culture, and the world at large are manifestly not such closed systems as Newton ideally described for his local physics. Those who misuse this famous epigram, speaking in part of his second law of thermodynamics, do so to make simplistic human relations, especially those political, in order to manipulate others. In so doing, however, they have, perhaps inadvertently but nonetheless bodily, moved from the technical to the ethical. They have expressed what is of the utmost for our shared humanity; not at all our ability to extend our physical capabilities through equally material prosthetics but rather our inability to know our ends, both singular and indeed collective. Its is only ethics which speaks, Janus-like but without duplicity, to this human dilemma and not and never technique. In doing so, we are brought face to face with the existential import of being able to at once have an awareness of how we would ideally act ‘if all else was equal’ and the ‘system was closed’, and thus the equal understanding that we must in any case take action without direct recourse to either ideals or to an ideal world.

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

Can Communism Contribute to Culture?

Can Communism Contribute to Culture? (after giving birth to it)

            The question of culture within a communist mode of production is a highly speculative one. Not least due to the historical facts; there has never been an authentically communist society. Engels sought to close the circle on history itself, by reprising ‘primitive communism’ writ large and sourced in the largesse of rationalized industrial production. Social contract societies are the original human cultures, so in one sense, culture is itself a child of communism, or perhaps less ideologically, communalism. These types of social organization, referred to as having ‘mechanical solidarity’ by Durkheim and being pre-political in Pierre Clastres’ sensibility – here, only the presence of surplus generates social hierarchy and all that this radically novel form of social relations entails and has, in the interim, entailed – seem taken quite unawares by Engels’ appropriation of them as a test model for the future of humanity. This moment represents best the 18th century Rousseauist sense that Marx and Engels brought to 19th century social thought. And there is a dose of early romanticism, healthy or no, in all such utopian imaginings, from Plato’s ideal state to the relatively stateless vision of Ayn Rand. Such a moment is reiterative when examined through the lens of the arts, the chief contributor to culture in its narrower sense.

            For fraudulent communism, the cases are mostly negative. From Shostakovich’s serial house arrests, to Brecht’s remorseful disillusionment, to the official non-personhood of Nicolae Bretan and many others, the arts tend to suffer, often ignominiously, under pseudo-communist regimes of all stripes and hues. Just as does fraudulent religion contribute nothing to the value and history of belief, a fraudulent politics can offer nothing to the culture and dynamic of ‘political man’. But Marx singles out the artist, among all other possible social roles, in his early examination of the merits of industrial or technocratic communism. One of the arguments he makes is both rational and ethical; give everyone the opportunity to evidence whether or not they have the artistic genius. In China, there is a piano school wherein thousands of pre-selected students study. In the closing scenes of the wincingly intimate documentary of Yo Yo Ma, he is shown speechless and with eyes glinting, standing in a studio listening to a ten-year-old Chinese girl play Chopin. The legendary cellist, one of the greatest artists of our time, is in awe. For the young lady is not merely reproducing Chopin with utter perfection, and doing so sporting an oversize pink plastic watch on her wrist to boot, she is Chopin. Aside from such extramundane factors such as speculative reincarnation, her very being speaks volumes regarding Marx’s suggestion. For him, it was simply a question of available numbers. Only by extending the opportunity stream and structure of universal education can we identify such talents.

            China too is hardly communist in Marx and Engels’ sense, but unlike other social experiments of similar type, it has realized that its apical intellectual ancestors – both very much Western of course, in direct contradiction to all the nonsense emanating from Beijing about China being non-Western or even anti-Western in some whole-souled fashion – were correct; one had to have consistent and highly rationalized industrial means of production before any communist relations of production could take hold. And the only manner of reaching the former status is through capitalism, not communism, as Marx himself clearly stated. China backed into Engels’ historical curve, as it were, with the seeming inevitability that a controlled economy is either a dead-end regarding the dialectical fulfillment of history through the demise of class conflict – and ultimately the ‘withering away’ of the state itself – or that what we are witnessing, with dubious privilege, is just another transition point along the way to authentic communist relations. This latter claim seems to me to be fraught with potential rationalization, even abuse. For primitive communism, the first society, was also the most radically democratic, and this without surplus of any kind, which is probably the more germane aspect of any of this. The hypothetical communism of Marx and Engels presumes upon variables that on the ground feel almost as extramundane as does reincarnation: one, that an entire large-scale populace would have an equal and representative say in the doings of a skeleton government; two, that such leaders as they may be would themselves be Platonic ideals, ‘philosopher-kings’ politburo style; and three, that politics would continue to be of interest at all, in a society that on the one hand cannot imagine even the question of God, as Marx once again states, and on the other, accepts and endorses the sensibility that politics should wholly replace religion with regard to human passion and interest, as well as ‘belief’.

            But there is no need to believe in something which is factual, in the world as it is, and without the credulous. We may not know all there is to potentially know about our own political doings, but there is never a true mystery in the sense that some part of politics has itself departed from the quotidian in some irruptive manner. Even hypothetical communism appears otherworldly given that its goal is to eliminate itself, end history, vanquish ideology, transform individual will into that collective, and install a world ‘government’ that governs without itself being a state! All of this together does indeed require a leap of faith, enormous and enchanted at once. But the question of political alternatives, no matter how stylized and romantic, is yet quite salient to our time, when democracies, partial as they may be, seem disenchanted with themselves, and many appear to long for authoritarian practices in power as well as in personal relations. The tired adage ’be careful what you wish for’ seems to make no impression on such persons. Far from the mostly long mute ideologues of post-war versions of Neo-Marxism, it is rather the unstudied and uncultured franchises who desire to be dominated and told what to do – in spite of their rhetoric of freedom and individual responsibility; the only consistency here is the truer call to ‘let me be responsible for dominating and dictating to my own children et al’ – that present to contemporary historical relations its gravest threat.

            For history too does end within any authoritarian circle. The opposite of that sidereal, this enclosure pens its own history, ‘rewrites’ itself, as we saw in the Reich then and in Florida now, and thus pens itself inside it. That said, reactionary pseudo-history is likely no less a fraud than much of the ‘politically correct’ rewrites that equally scan the career of human endeavor for examples and exemplars favorable only to their narrowed and ideologically inclined druthers. PragerU has its corresponding entity in the DEI sensitivity; one might well say that they deserve one another, just as did, at least at the level of statehood, the Soviet Union deserve the Third Reich and vice-versa, however awful this may be to contemplate. Do then the actual Taliban deserve the self-proclaimed ‘American Taliban’? Does the Third-Wave ‘Feminist’ deserve the neo-liberal economist? One could go on of course, but the point here is that it is commonplace for the political pendulum, to borrow another cliché, once pulled back in one direction, to entail an equal and opposite swing. The oscillation thence initiated cannot be halted in any rapid manner, and we find ourselves swinging to and fro along with everything else. The pendulum is its own metronome, setting the pace of public discourse and the level of political interest. Dialogue is absent, as well as is historical consciousness. One does not understand history, or the history of thought, on purpose. In this, we also may say that we deserve our own shared ignorance.

            For Marx, the question of culture was, as ever, a dialectical one. It is just that, as perceptive as he was of the reality of the social conditions in which he found himself alive, he yet seems unable to extend this same profundity within his own analytic. If he had, he would have noted its inconsistencies, which in turn have allowed, and perhaps even prevaricated, the light readings both Lenin and Mao brought to their early studies, not to mention their personal vendettas projected onto a mostly unknowing social world. It is always possible, of course, that both Marx and Engels knew full well of the challenges to their own logic inherent in their claims, and simply ignored them in order to further revolutionary ambitions. I would like to doubt this was truly the case, as in any major thinker, there can be found lapses of both reason and imagination alike. That it would take such a lapse, perhaps calculated and controlled, in order for communism to recreate culture anew, as in the Chopin example – and is this an authentic contribution to culture? – and especially so, to actually give birth to a new culture entirely, suggests that any future attempt approaching the vision of Marx and Engels should hope that it never achieves its political goals.

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

The Anomie of the People

The Anomie of the People (subjective alienation today)

            In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx and Engels outline the four forms of alienated consciousness. In a sense, this quartet of disharmony in turn form the Gestalt of Proletarian unthought, just as they provide for the Bourgeois outlook an odd, even perverse, set of rationalizations for their own continuing alienation. Capital is more complex now than it was in the mid-19th century, and the failure of the middle classes of our own time has highlighted not so much Marx’s ideas but rather that of his successor in the human sciences, Emile Durkheim. Momentarily, we must admit that the former might well have seen in the latter a yet further decoy, but perhaps not. Subjective alienation, or anomie, is just as real as are the others, objective and structural as they may be. What Durkheim was confronting as a discursive manifest was the same thing that an individual person confronted as a producer and consumer as well as a human being: is it only the case that objectively alienated labor by necessity contributed directly to the anomic existence, or is it more interesting than this?

            Let us first review Marx’s conceptions, keeping in mind that in the interim many mitigating factors have been created, for better or worse, to mute at least the effects of the problem at hand. The four forms of alienated consciousness are as follows: 1. Alienation from the product of work: workers produce objects that for the most part they cannot themselves afford or are even ‘meant’ for them. 2. Alienation from other workers: workers are placed in a do or die competition with one another, thereby sabotaging any sense of a wider solidarity. 3. Alienation from work itself: most work is unfulfilling in any deeper sense, ‘its just a job’, and 4. Alienation from human potential: this is by far the most profound of the forms and speaks to our species-being being distanced from its own broader abilities. In this, capital inherits the worst of the religious pre-modern worldview, but without any of the entailing grace or salvation about it; one is born, one works, one dies.

            Each of the forms has undergone extensive mutation, some more, some less. 1. For the most part, workers can in fact afford the objects they help produce, and for some, such as contractors and skilled labor, the potential exists for they themselves to construct such objects, such as executive homes, for themselves and more or less by themselves, over time. 2. Unions, which Marx and Engels disdained, have eased the sense that workers are each other’s enemies and only that, though the globalization of labor has heightened the anxiety around finding and keeping a job at a living wage. At the same time, the more skills one has, the less likely an employer can afford to lose, not you yourself, but the class of worker in which you have placed yourself. 3. Much work has been augmented to become more existentially fulfilling, though it remains a servitude in the service sector; Durkheim himself made this first point not long after Marx’s death, and suggested that wages earned could ‘borrow’ from the prestige of wages spent, however frivolously. The journal The Hindu noted some twenty years ago or so that Europeans spent on average about one billion dollars on ice cream products per annum, for instance. 4. We are yet quite unsure of the scope of human potential, and presumably we are far from reaching its nadir. Marx himself stated that capital was the most liberating form of economic organization to date since it did free up some few people to reach their individual potentials and thus display something of the role-model to others. It is an open question whether or not an authentic communism would do as well. Even so, this final and most damning form of objective alienation remains a plague on our species-being, though one could certainly argue that wage labor is hardly the only factor in its ongoing presence.

            Durkheim was dissatisfied with the structural explanation of alienated consciousness in the main due to its utter ignoring of the chief locus of perception in Bourgeois relations, that of the individual. In this sense, Marx’s analysis presented itself as a contradiction in terms, and it was not the only one extant in the 1844 manuscripts. One can only be reminded at this juncture that Marx and Engels also ignored the fact that communism, as a still hypothetical mode of production, entailed no alteration in the means of production, unlike every other sea-change of this sort in history. In Marx, communism was simply capitalism bereft of pre-modern sentiments; the symbolic forms of the theistic period would somehow drop off, altering the relations of production but not the technical and industrial means. Communism thus is presented as an exception to the ruling dynamic of history – class conflict – and the only way one can rationalize this odd conclusion to Engels’ historical model is that within communism class conflict does itself end. But this is putting the cart before the horse in logical terms. Beyond this, though often seen as a mere aside, Marx’s analysis of the role of the artist ‘under’ communism also ignores the most profound aspect of what the artist does in society; she works against the grain, most simply, opening up human consciousness by transgressing norms and thus thereby transcending alienation as well. It is unclear how, in the communist mode of production, the artist would have anything to do at all, or if she did, would be able, or allowed, to do it.

            All this aside, Durkheim’s’ main interest was complementing the structural model for the personal level. All very well to bandy about large-scale factors, at the end of the day, real people bore the results of their world-historical confluence. If revolution was consciousness in the making, how then could it occur at all without individuals processing their perceptions of their own alienation? Indeed, they do so, and the means by which they do Durkheim called the anomic relations of production. Anomie is subjective alienation; its symptoms are anxiousness, angst, embitteredness, resentment, and even neurosis and ressentiment. In a word, anomie is a most serious affair, and even it be seen as a mere symptom of objectively defined alienated consciousness within Bourgeois relations, what it presents to us is a full-blooded symptomology of the entire mode of production. Durkheim’s genius lay in his ability to take the most minute moment and see in it the whole of the relevant Zeitgeist. Witness his analysis of deviance in his 1893 The Division of Labor in Society, perhaps still the most famous example of inductive thinking in the human sciences. But anomie and its further effects – as in, suicide – appears as a working conception four years later. Part of another four-term model, the anomic person is alienated from his own selfhood. To him, this is a more present form of inexistence than any structural item could be. A job is a job, it is not a life. To be fair, we speak from our own time, and Durkheim, whether or not he was a critic of the fact that capital had augmented in significant ways its panoply of distractions by the fin de siecle period, had the vision to understand that this relatively free mode of production could not survive its socialist detractors for any length of time if it had not become more appealing to the worker himself. Nonetheless, in doing so, the symbolic life of the pre-modern period abruptly slipped away, leading to disenchantment, something that Durkheim’s major sibling thinker, Max Weber, became famous for analyzing. But for the former, Entzauberung, the loss of the ‘magical’ quality of and in the world, was not an end in itself, but rather something which had rather been transposed, with a variety of plausible substitutions taking the place of the once religious-inspired worldview aspects. Instead of a local sect, a local sports team, instead of a pilgrimage site, a sports stadium. Instead of a saint himself, a Taylor Swift herself, and so on. For Durkheim, all of these transpositions involved the perennial career of the concept of the sacred, something that Marx and Engels ignored, and something that Weber stated, rather perfunctorily, could not truly exist in modernity, just as he so claimed for authentic charisma. But we can compare Joan of Arc to Tiger Woods along such lines, Durkheim might have said. The sacred was for Durkheim a kind of meta-conception, something that survived even shifts in the mode of production, from subsistence to agrarianism to industry and perhaps yet to intelligent technologies. For Engels, such shifts were all inclusive, so concepts such as the sacred, or ideas such as archetypes, for that matter, were inadmissible to his modeling. This is clearly an oversight at best, especially in light of what we have already mentioned regarding his apparently incomplete premises for the ‘final’ shift from capital to communism. The only way to make one kind of sense of such a model is, aside from the usual inability to predict the future, which all human analytics fall short of, is that communism ends symbolic forms and in their entirety. As Marx put it, distinguishing his much more radical ‘atheism’ from that of Feuerbach, ‘For the communist man, the question of God cannot arise.’

            Needless to say, Durkheim’s vision of the sacred was much broader and deeper than any of this. He was aware, as was Engels, of cosmologies which had no Gods at all, but unlike his German compatriot, he used this knowledge in his own analyses. By 1912, with the publication of the legendary The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, appearing in the same year as the first essays of both Scheler’s Ressentiment and Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Durkheim had formalized the dialectic between trans-historical concepts such as the sacred, ritual, or the archetypes and their contrasting historical forms, such as specific pantheons or godheads, rituals in their ethnographic detail, and beliefs. Once again, as a clearly sibling analytic to Weber’s distinction between historical and ideal types, the sense that any specific mode of production would be immune to alienation in general, and anomie in particular, might be called into question. Durkheim had, somewhat ironically, somewhat painted himself into an analytic corner. At the same time, his understanding of that which can transcend historical alterations of world-orders and even worldviews was, akin to art itself, indeed the chief anonymous manner of initiating those very shifts themselves!

            This insight is of the utmost. In modernity, art has replaced religious belief, popular art, religious behavior. But the idea of the sacred remains intact, as does the enactment of ritual and the identification with the archetypes, though such lists thereof vary. Finally, we may state with more confidence that anomie, though also likely a local guise of another kind of presence, specific to human consciousness and perhaps even primordial and thence Promethean in its origins – such a sensibility Heidegger casts as Sorgeheit; the dialectical apex or synthesis resulting from the Aufheben of alienation and anxiety – leads mostly not to suicide at all but rather to care or concernfulness, allows us a glimpse of the possibility of a human future wherein alienation is itself overcome.

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

A Modernist Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autobiography in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regression Analysis Redefined

Introduction: Regression Analysis Redefined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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