Gender: the Ever-Bending Story
Beauty has little to do with desire.
– Marcel Proust
A romantic notion of the performance of gender, attached to any age or aesthetic, would simply be to suggest that we are attempting, in our mortal and fragile manner, to approach the concept of Beauty. We are to be the beautiful embodied, and this is our sole and singular desire. From the mimicry of fashion, the downward percolation of haute-couture, the adulation of celebrity, the fitness regimes that claim that sixty is the new forty and so on – is thereby twenty the new twelve? Our delayed ethical maturity rates support this other claim at least – such a desire to become and if possible, remain, beautiful, animates much of even popular health discourse. Not an ounce of wasted fat. Sadly, perhaps, few of us attain these heady heights, especially as we age. We are another version of the 99% movement, more or less asexual, displaying genders of uncertain registry, possessing only tattered proof of ownership, gradually weaning ourselves away from glamour.
Though this sensibility maintains a certain surface tension between ideals and realities, it is still a gloss on another, more elemental sense that the limits of mortality place upon us. Rather than simply a desire for the Beautiful, more deeply as well as more simply, we are driven by a basic will to life. We understand that health, in general, lends itself to longevity. That the figure is enhanced by the physique is of secondary import only. And yet, if the prime mover is an attempt not so much at Beauty per se, with neither Truth nor the Good necessarily following along from this, but rather at Godhead itself, it is also true to say that living better has it charms when juxtaposed with simply living longer.
The bodies of the Greek pantheon, for example, are both cliché as well as inspiring what Sontag in our own time referred to as the ‘fascist aesthetic’. Riefenstahl was her particular target, and at the time, this latter duly replied ‘I cannot imagine how someone so smart can be so stupid’. On both counts, the rest of us are guilty. We ape the esthetic of eugenics whilst pretending unawareness of the fascist methods it takes to attain it. It is also a ‘look’ underpinned by health and hygiene, and neither erotism nor even sexuality qua sexuality. In a word, a hot body is a better reproductive machine. It is changing population dynamics, altered political franchises, and transitional personal identities that support the more realistic analytic of the study of gender taken into the social world rather than being left to the wider latitudes and sometimes deadpan platitudes of the world of literature.
This said, if we compare the eugenics height-weight charts of the 1930s with the insurance driven charts of our own day, it is clear that we have lost some weight, as it were. This is a good thing in the sense that women should not be defined by their reproductive physiology and men should not be defined by their ability to carry around the gears of war. Let the latter play out this pre-nuclear destiny in video games, let the former simply adopt. Gender and sex have never been in a one-to-one correspondence with one another. They are regularly completely separate conceptions and thus give forth conflicting sensibilities. ‘Born a woman, born a man’ is someone’s paean to a dubious nostalgia. Who this ‘someone’ may be in today’s world is certainly of interest, but what students of this topic tell us is that it is more of a ‘what’ than a specifically definable ‘who’. Foucault’s conception of ‘bio-power’ is likely the most powerful analytic tool we have to lens these phenomena. Of its relationship to the ability to wage wars of both attrition and obliteration, he states: “But the existence in question is no longer the juridical existence of sovereignty; at stake is the biological existence of a population. If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population.” (1978:137 ). Any State which is losing population will have more repressive laws against both LGBTQ2 and abortion; Russia and Poland are obvious examples. If a State has too many people, such as India, laws are loosened to these regards, as we have also recently observed. Within the confines of national boundaries, the same argument covers the actions of waning subcultures or those dominant. Evangelical Protestants have maintained and even succeeded in growing their franchise by teaching against non-heterosexual identities and displaying a vigorous opposition to abortion, this in spite of the fact that it is working and middle class married white women who abort the vast majority of fetuses – simply due to personal constraints of finance and time as well as perhaps, an incipient sense that they are not vessels of mere reproduction after all – and in spite of the fact LGBTQ2 numbers represent an insignificant portion of sectarian franchises. The logic of desire alone argues that the subaltern should be commending post haste alternate sexual identities and practices for the dominant culture, their enemies, instead of making blanket statements that all of us should eschew the bending of gender and sexuality alike.
This straying from rationality also overtakes a strictly biopower approach, for once again, if the goal is political dominance in a democracy, one’s enemies should be encouraged to abort, to be gay etc. and to generally practice a hedonism that will never lead to stable family and reproductive relationships. Given that this is manifestly not what we observe, it may be the case that subalterns already know that their enemies will not heed their advice, so they can rest in preaching to the choir, hoping that at least these latter will in fact do so. In lesser democracies, governments have more ability to impose restrictions and cast to the historical winds any opposition. Even so, there are ways to counter such Herodian measures. If one is expected to add to the population of one’s homeland in the effort to make it more powerful as a military figure, or to help insulate it against the otherwise necessary importation of immigrant labour pools – which in turns heralds a latent ethnicism; the proverbial ‘fear of a ‘black’ planet’ – one can simply practice safer sex. It is of interest that while this is an oft impotent cliché in the education of youth, we do not so much hear a peep of it regarding adults, especially those in conjugal relations. Speaking of the hygiene of eugenics, it was the Reich’s ideal to reproduce as rapidly as possible, hence the gaudy medals given out to the mothers who bore the most children per annum. One suspects Russia, for instance, of providing more vulgar trophies, this time for the men, given the paucity of laws against domestic and child abuse in that country. Zhivym boitsam pochot i chest’, don’t want to marry, settle down and have kids? Well, here, guys, do whatever you want to your women (and children) and the State will turn a blind eye to it. How’s that for a deal?
While it is also sadly likely the case that many men in all nations would find such an offer attractive – why should there be opportunities for this kind of recreation as performance in the theaters of abuse that include aspects of the sex industry as well as the far more real abuses that yet take place in some schools in certain countries and in most homes around the world if this were not the case? – it is also plausible to suggest that the more public LGBTQ2 phenomena is suggestive of a transition away from not only the bourgeois family and its repressed esthetic of binary erotism but even more importantly, from the call of duty the homeland has customarily represented. Nuclear weapons have provided an ironic egress from both of these structured strictures. On the one hand, vast armies are no longer required to wage war. On the other, everyone is now a warrior, however passive, for in contemporary global war, all perish and not merely those who serve. It may raise eyebrows to declare a direct relation between weapons of mass destruction and the wider advent of the LGBTQ2, but this is, to me, quite clear.
The key to using this aesthetic and ethical disconnect to the advantage of overcoming the cause and working more intimately with the effect is to ensure that no matter the local cultural source of youth, the new ideology of global interrelations and dialogue be taught as the commanding presence in educational processes. Yes, this too is an argument, but it rests in the service of life. For the first time in the history of gender-bending, those who on the face of it mean to become comfortable with their extant bodies through gender transition or other methods, also have this wider calling. Their example must teach the rest of us how to overcome the dual and allied forces of State and Family. I think that those who resist LGBTQ2 persons are aware of this very threat, even though their response is too steeped in Hexis to attain a specific rationality. The rhetoric that a god is displeased with alternate sexual identities cannot possibly resonate in a diverse world of many creeds and creditors. No, the best defense against non-binary gender is to simply have as many children as possible within the subculture in question and then teach them about man and woman as they were ‘meant’ to be. Ignore whatever else is going on and hope that the rest of us will simply die out for lack of reproductive potential, in another irony, kind of the like the Shakers. Now, will the women of Poland, of Russia, or for that matter, of Texas and Utah, comply?
I would like to doubt it. There is an alliance between feminism and ‘genderism’, for lack of a better term. So the only other tactic that can be employed by a waning culture is to try to convince at least some of the rest of us to join in. Men, are you feeling a little ‘incel’ these days? Join us! We have young women aplenty eager to serve you, and we too will look the other way if you enjoy disciplining them (and their children) in some old-world fashion. A number of threads in VoyForums, for example, attest to this marketing and its grim results, which are celebrated as if domestic abuse were a common good. On the other side, the rest of us, however asexual and denuded of our own desires, must put our remaining energies into curtailing all such activities to their null point, while accessing the spirit of Antigone but transcending her choice, which in turn may mean simply destroying the sources which promote, and continue to promote, the inhumane ideals of family and state alike.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
Paris Hilton; My Heroine
In the politically conservative state of Utah this week, a major decision in the legal realm has paved the way for a far greater oversight of institutions catering to ‘troubled teens’. These sites are the contemporary guise of the now defunct asylum system, and one can hope that they will eventually suffer the same demise. The Utah ruling opens up a transformation to this regard across the United States, and the celebrity Ms. Hilton’s testimony was crucial in pushing it forward. A true heroine, Ms. Hilton suffered sundry abuse at one of these institutions, to which she was sent by her parents at age seventeen to ostensibly curb her ‘incessant partying’.
This is the key trope in yet another front within the wider ambit of the ineptly named ‘culture wars’. There is, in fact, nothing cultural about this conflict. It is a war against fascism, pure and simple, the same war that was waged against the Reich. Though at base a female-perspective riff on Robert Heinlein’s novella ‘If this goes on…’, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale should be enough for those who lack imagination to picture the society the so-called ‘Christian’ right desires to suffer upon the rest of us. They want to turn the entire world into an institution for ‘troubled’ youth. Never mind that their version of Christianity is a fraud, cooked up by the second Great Awakening Barnums and Baileys of the day. Never mind that in wider US law children and youth are not considered to be worthy of many human rights including the right not to be physically assaulted by their parents and yet in nineteen states, their teachers as well. Never mind that such wider laws are mostly unquestioned and that eighty percent of Americans still use physical coercion in child raising. Ms. Hilton’s victory remains a victory.
Not only is it admirable by way of the courage it must have taken for her to speak out publicly about the intimate abuse she suffered while in ‘care’, iterated by many others who were sent involuntarily to this same institution, but it is also of the utmost that lawmakers were so moved by this courage – shown both by her teenage self in actually undergoing and enduring such abuse as well as her adult self in being able to narrate it and thus expose this loathsome criminality – to take necessary action. The next step would be to shut these places down in their entirety.
When I was a professor in the USA for six years, I co-founded and then led the community service learning programs at two universities. A number of rehabilitation sites for youth were on my list of placements for my students. I accepted their applications after having studied their practices with all due rigor. The narratives my students later related to myself and their peers were grim, but these sites took in court referenced youth who had been found guilty of sexual assault, common assault, and other forms of juvenile mayhem that were actually against the law and did in fact endanger others. Not one of the inmates of these facilities had been forced by non-legal entities into incarceration, unlike Ms. Hilton. Now this is not to say that my experiential learning sites were above reproach. The methods of restraining violent youth were themselves violent, but rather of necessity, however regrettably. Pharmaceuticals were proscribed and administered to persons as young as ten for violence and even to quell libidinal drives. Indeed, many of the abuses that Ms. Hilton reports being a daily fetish in the non-court ordered sites were practiced as therapeutic interventions in the ones that contained court-ordered youth.
But therein lies the precise difference between such facilities. In the service learning sites within my ken, health professionals and judges were the sources of both placement and treatment. In the types of sites that the new Utah legal oversights will adjudicate, parents, pastors, teachers and other very dubious and non-professional authorities are the sources of the reference, placement, and ‘treatment’ once placed. And it is this line, between that of the discursively and legally responsible professional and the mere moralist, the line that turns lawful incarceration into abduction and forcible confinement, the line that turns treatment into abuse, that must not be crossed.
In volume three of my adventure trilogy, ‘Queen of Hearts’, Melissa Daniels, Guinevere’s contemporary sister, reflects on how their parents had regularly threatened to send her herself to one of these camps for ‘troubled teens’, and how many of those that were sent to them were once wards of the state:
“All that horseshit about magical swords and their relationship to their wielders tired me out. I felt the same way about animals, come to think of it. Equine therapy? That was one of the patent things those fucking evangelicals had set up for girls like me. Advertising how many of their wards – signed over by their parents sometimes for years at a time, including authority to discipline ‘if needed’ – had been adopted. They were in the business of saving souls, bless them; those of ‘wayward’ girls, girls with addictions, ‘attitude’ problems, ‘troubled teens’, now that was a favorite phrase. Fuck them all. And I will. [ ] We’ve already started. What we really needed to do, if we were to face a holy army of self-righteous regressives, was to raise an unholy one in return. Free all those so-called wayward girls and have them join with us. Get them back to their violent roots. Yes, freedom. Saving souls my fucking ass. All they were doing was taking opportunistic advantage to manipulate lost souls into their ever-bleeding franchise. It was simple demographics, thence simple politics. They could never get their regressive agenda tabled fully because there simply weren’t enough of them to do it. Compensate the loss of girls like me, well, boys too, by co-opting once wards of the state into their wider coven. Counsel them, pray with them, play with horses with them, swim and work-out and even paddle them when necessary. Wouldn’t you know it, I had been this close to having been sent to one of those ‘schools’ myself. Gwynne had herself never been threatened with it, but I had, once a month, for a couple of years. As soon as I had turned twelve, which was apparently the starting age these places accepted, mom and dad had showed me their websites. The girls all smiles, of course. Horses? Not my thing.”
This character no doubt has an axe to grind, given her own personal upbringing, but in essence her argument is correct. Placement sites for non-court ordered youth are like concentration camps with the goal of conversion and recruitment for the war latter day fascists desire to wage upon the rest of us. Though it would be a waste of infrastructure, I am tempted to borrow a phrase from the Reich myself, and suggest that this network of schools, camps, and other facilities simply be ‘levelled with the earth’, just as has been done with the vast majority of the now defunct asylum system.
I once had a lengthy sit on the tarmac at the Minneapolis International Airport. To my right, just off the ever expanding system of runways and service roads, was a cluster of Victorian buildings, standing starkly against the staring moonlight. It was a long abandoned Sanatorium, lower floors bricked in or covered over with aging plywood, the upper floor windows’ plate glass sometimes shattered by the intrepid vandal, the remaining sockets looking an abject absurdity that had transformed the once private madness of a lost soul into the unreason of an entire discourse. The irony of allying oneself with the history of psychopathology in order to hopefully defeat a yet more evil outlook does not escape us. Even so, as with Tuberculosis, Hysteria, Cancer and AIDS, the movement from morals to science is crucial. Without it, the abuses endured by Ms. Hilton and hundreds of thousands like her will only continue apace. I agree that teens need to spend less time partying, but not for the reasons the fascists intend. No, rather youth need to recruit themselves into a war against those very forces which threaten all of our present freedoms and more ominously, all of those freedoms that yet may come.
Social Philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
Some Overlooked Genres of Domestic Terrorism
The trinity of revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century produced much to which we are in debt. Modern democracy, the triumph of reason, mass production are, in a word, the summa of the fruits of this still recent period of human consciousness. Each has its flaws, but it is overdone to simply restate that industry is destroying the planet, that enfranchisement has its disappointing limits, that some dreams of reason indeed produce monsters.
Yet it is the very insidiousness of such dreams that is their true terror. They overlay our society and ourselves, and thus they are most often overlooked. This isn’t a blame game, for no single person is responsible. But there are those who, upon finding themselves in groups of apparently like-minded others, fall for their weakest aspects of their specific characters, just as we as a society might do in times of wider crisis.
The pedigree of ‘concerned citizenry’ dates back to the confluence of the bourgeois coming of age, the 1820s and 1830s. This is the world of Jane Austen, of George Elliot, of Stendhal and for that matter, of Schubert. But great art has a way of hovering above the push and pull of daily life, even if, in all of its radical presence – witness for instance Muller’s famous line from Schubert’s Winterreise; ‘If there are no gods upon the earth, then we ourselves are gods’ – it subverts and overcomes the norms and forms of staid civility and ‘proper behavior’. To one’s sense is another’s sensibility, perhaps. Even so, the efflorescence of a new kind of outlook was on the make, that of the emerging middle classes. It is sage to note that even at the height of this class’s self-consciousness, say the Ward Cleaver tinged c. 1960 or so, only about 60% of American families conformed to the ‘nuclear’ ideal, an apropos adjective, given this other steadily enlarging skeleton in the post-war closet.
Not long after the institution of mass public liberal arts schooling for merchant-class children, coming in part due to the efforts of the first incarnation of ‘bored housewives’ sans internet, the separation of the mentally ill, the criminally insane, and the plain criminal by Pinel, and the inaugural feminism of Harriet Martineau, close friend and intellectual comrade of John Stuart Mill, there appeared the ‘child saving movement’. From factory to school, it represented, at base, a delay in the death sentence of wage slavery. Yet it was also the beginning of the idea that children were not mere chattel. From this point we have, more or less in historical succession, the temperance movement, the suffragettes, the fight against polio etc., including the ‘march of dimes’, and on into our own time. These latter-day saints shall go unnamed here, for wariness of their possible litigiousness, latent or blatant.
Prudence aside, it is rather a kind of possessive prudishness coupled, to use a word advisedly, with a dark desire to express sexual predation upon young people that drives much of contemporary, if overlooked, domestic terrorism. These are grass-roots movements – though some may be in receipt of public funding, shame on us – and thus differ from the sources which spawn events such as sending young people home to change clothes because their apparel was too titillating for school staff members and administrators to control their own longings. The public castigation of youth in this way is a distended and indirect form of surrogate rape; young women are the ‘special victims’ of these assaults. Perhaps the script-writers of CSI might look into these acts if only for a fresh episode. No, these grass-roots groups are not functionaries of State terrorism, as are the schools, but rather have their own agenda, which often seeks to contravene the law as it is, once again, especially in relation to youth. ‘Parents’ rights’ or ‘parental advocacy’ groups are part of this ilk, as are groups claiming they act for the ‘protection’ of children. NGO’s that are currently seeking to ban various forms of pornography fit this bill to a tee, whether or not their motivation is directly ‘religious’. More than attempting to control the freedom of youth, they ultimately seek a wider control over the freedom of all.
But these are not the only overlooked terrorists on the domestic front. We also read of yet another Olympic gymnastics coach accused of much more direct sexual assault, who promptly committed suicide when he was exposed. The easy way out, or perhaps he realized that any penalty the State might render would be too good for the likes of him. We are inclined to agree if the latter was the actual case. This is another pattern; adults who desire to work intimately with youth might well be suspect. Thus coaching and sports organizations fall also under this subcutaneous rubric of potential terrorist threats. After all, part of the very definition of terrorism includes the intent to provoke fear and cause injury or even death to regular persons somehow associated with the ideals this or that group wishes to destroy. Young people’s psyches are destroyed by such coaches, sports parents, media – both public and private – which ‘celebrates’ the accomplishments of young athletes with little enough attention paid to how they became so skilled at their respective games.
But by far the social institution that is responsible for the most per capita acts of domestic terrorism is the family itself. Ninety-five percent of child abuse of all types occurs within its bounds. This normative scene of violence is only heightened, worsened, during a health crisis that forces family members in too close quarters for lengthy amounts of time. This statistic alone puts to rest the incessant decoy of parental groups who, aside from expressing their own desires to control youth, need to provide both cover for and distraction against their ongoing prevarications of the general condition of almost all youth. Counseling programs and social work degrees that focus their curricula on ‘family-based’ solutions are also thus missing the mark, both empirically and ethically, and could be included on the terrorist list.
So, just for the sake of expositional organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, what then do we have?
1. Parent’s groups: whether shilling for greater ‘rights’, advocating for more influence in the schools – surely the most proverbial Canadian case centered round the farcical revolving door of the Abbotsford school board the 1980s and 1990s, where the province periodically fired it only to have it re-elected – or seeking to ‘protect’ children from everyone else but the most statistically real villains, parents groups retain the air of bourgeois hypocrisy better than any other genre of domestic terrorist.
2. Training organizations for youth coaching and sports, including those more informally associated with churches: A combination of the will to exert a fascist control over young people – how many times have I witnessed, even on a casual walk with my wife, some coach or official yelling at a young person, right up in their face, using a physically threatening stance? (Let’s not even speak of the parents on the sidelines) – and a patent voyeurism, given the scanty athletic gear for youth in most sports, these ‘adults’ are somewhere down the same road as the now notorious Olympic gymnastics coaches. The fetish surrounding ‘organized sports’ being somehow ‘character building’ for kids is utter nonsense. What they actually teach is competition, the disdain for the weakest link, and that bullying can be internalized and turned against your opponents. Here’s some simple advice to those with an inclination to coach youth sports; find something better to do, if you can.
3. The family: It has been two centuries of this much vaunted and now nostalgia driven NGO and it is high time it was consigned to the dustbin of a history which aborted itself at the very moment its dreams might have risen above its monsters. I’m open to discuss novel options.
No doubt this list could be extended to include Norman Rockwellian scout leaders and volunteers and ‘ gender conversion therapists’- those latter’s activities soon to be banned in Canada – but aside from that, when it comes to thinking about domestic terrorism, the usual suspects of ‘Alt-right’, Neo-Nazism et al, or the yet more rare ‘revolutionary’ groups whose heyday was the 1970s, just doesn’t cut it either in terms of actual influence or sheer numbers of persons involved. No, rather the groups and institutions listed here are far more dangerous, act to act, event to event, than anything some utterly marginal ‘ideological’ group could ever muster. The grass-roots terrorists adorn themselves with a rhetoric designed to appeal to all of us who actually practice all the things we are not supposed to practice, including in Canada, what can be called Section 43 violations. They have widespread political support, simply because it is in the character of politics to be cowardly in the face of the mob. They align themselves with the prevailing winds of ressentiment and nostalgia alike, both hallmarks of a fraudulent anxiety that seeks to assuage our deeper misgivings about how we yet provide for our children, such as we may do, on the backs of all those who cannot do the same. It is one thing to sheepishly go about one’s business and work for a better world for all, but to take the penumbra of our desires for control and lust and dress them up in the wooly-eyed vestments of both vanity and vindictiveness places us beyond redemption.
If it is the case that human reason does sometimes produce not so much monsters per se but rather monstrosities and perhaps, pace Muller, yet monstrous gods, this is not the whole story. Democracy was strengthened by the first feminist groups, children were placed on the long road to attaining fully human rights – though very few nations have yet reached this ideal – drug and alcohol abuse eventually became a topic of health discourse rather than of that moral, and various diseases were overcome. Even so, we must ask after the costs of these changes, for no ‘good in itself’ can function as a social good without addressing the entirety of each historical process. There are events which are evil in principle – the residential schools, for instance – and knowing this, we tend to desire to balance such a reality with the idea that there must also be things which are in principle nothing but good. This is, for the greatest part, simply not so. Coming to terms with this social fact, confronting those who maintain and promote underhanded desires flanked by a masked militia of neo-fascist domestic euphemisms – ‘protection’, ‘discipline’, ‘teamwork’, ‘character’, ‘family values’, etc. – and fighting back against the too-soothing directives of these NGO’s and others will in fact make our society more democratic, by way of extending an holistic human freedom to its most vulnerable members.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
On the Act of Understanding the Other
“…we must remember this, that the art of understanding adversaries is an innovation of the present century, characteristic of the historic age. Formerly, a man was exhausted by the effort of making out his own meaning, with the help of his friends. The definition and comparison of systems which occupies so much of our recent literature was unknown, and everybody who was wrong was supposed to be very wrong indeed.” (Dahlberg-Acton 1906:202 ).
The great challenge of our own age, that which imagines itself as verging upon post-historical, remains an historical challenge. The shock of the other, her very existence, both promotes this challenge into an orbit that appears dauntingly distant, but also demotes the value of taking up this challenge as something unworthy of our collective efforts. For the other is at first no friend. And yet the stakes could not be higher. Even in Lord Acton’s period, which is still very much our own as modulated from imperial colonialism to economic neo-colonialism, from biopower presumed to biopower desired, from sex to gender, from race to ethnicity, from labor-based classes to those status-based and so on, people were well aware of the historical cost, not so much of misunderstanding, but of deliberate disagreement for the sake of political opportunism and messianistic adoration. Like moving to the relative minor from the nineteenth century’s dominant major key, our own time has been modulated by these structural forces so that the otherness of the other is much more apparent to us, and much more troubling. There no longer is a ‘white man’s burden’, and if anything, fashionable discourse says to us the opposite: that the white man has imposed a burden upon the world that reaches out from beyond his own recently dug grave. Yet it was this very personage who invented the concept of understanding, after many painstaking millennia. Almost all of our philosophical ideas which aid us in coming to both the understanding of the other and what is also of the utmost, one’s own self-understanding, emerge from the ethics of the West, authored and thought out loud by the best of what is often considered a bad lot.
If this sounds apologetic in any way, it is because abandoning this discourse means that we are thrown back over into a pre-modernity that is too sure of itself; its religious beliefs, its sense of social order, its political reason, its morality. The Enlightenment, the penultimate fruit of the tree of reason that was first planted some 2.6K years ago in Greece, is the source of historical understanding and also that ethical, for it goes beyond the sense that tolerance alone is a good enough showing to otherness as a principle, just as it makes larger the compassion that was to be shown, in Christian ethics, to the other as an individual. This is one of the reasons why Acton refers to understanding the other as an ‘art’. Art simultaneously participates in the universal and the individual. It brings the cosmos to the person without presuming to personalize it. It allows the intimate to experience the infinite without aggrandizing what occurs between persons into a universal force. Similarly the art of self-understanding, which too must attain a new intimacy in the face of an overwhelming and anonymous world, let alone the incomparably larger cosmos.
If this is an ideal, let me suggest that before one can attain art, one must task oneself with the more modest act. The act of understanding the other is a beginning, but in our own day, even this appears to be often absent. We hear popular writers speaking of ‘reaching out’ to one another, of tolerance, compassion, even acceptance, but are any of these, or can any combinations thereof, truly generate an authentic understanding of the other as a vehicle for otherness? Here, I am using the term to connote neither the untoward nor the uncanny as such. Yes, both are present in the encounter with the other insofar as the first may be the case if we fail to understand something of her – she may end up presenting a threat to our own parochialism, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – and the second occurs simply because of the shock of realizing that another human being can in fact be so different from me that I am stretched to recognize her as human. The untoward is what we seek to avoid, but the uncanny cannot be expunged. We simply have to accept this in ourselves through the other as part of the act of understanding. For otherness also resides within, from the metaphoric rhetoric of the unconscious life, to the role stress and conflict that occupies our waking hours. It is quite enough most of the time and for most of us, to nod again to Acton, to ‘make out our own meanings’, oft enough without any help at all, from either friend and certainly not from foe.
Just so, just now, we see that friend and foe are becoming all too clear, so much so that if one is not the one, one is the other. This is the very essence of pre-modernity in all of its diverse organizational forms. From hunting and gathering, through horticulture and agrarian means of production, the stranger could not be one of us. It is a long-germinating resonance of the second Great Awakening period (c.1790-1840) in the USA that American politics – ironically heralded as the most ingenious, reasoned and liberating if experimental dynamic in world history by De Tocqueville at the very moment it was about to turn inward and fold back upon itself – has seemingly regressed into a bipolar pre-modernity; one is either friend or foe and there is nothing, and more importantly, no one, in between.
The art of understanding is the culmination of a series of acts which direct themselves toward a sense of self-recognition, thence further, toward a more risky comprehension that the other really is her own person who is under no obligation to agree with me about anything at all. Coming to terms with the other is at first a mere political exercise, but right now we appear to be lacking even this. Such terms are necessary in order for a society to function in its basic sense. We do seem to be starting at a zero point, or rather, restarting. This is due to the fact that what were originally very small populations west of the Alleghenies – it is important to note that the first railhead through this range was only accomplished in 1857 – grew at a rate similar to their political disenfranchisement. When agriculture and ranching became themselves marginal to the emerging industrial economy, these Americans had already girded themselves with a century of ‘awakened’ ideas. If the Puritans were intolerant and neurotic, those whom they pushed westward were idealistic and victimized. This victimology, present from the moment the new republic recognized itself in a post-colonial core, urban, commercial, capitalist, and seeking its own culture, has come down to us as a wider Western culture as the song of all those who suffer from yet larger forces; chief amongst them, globalization. But while Western economies are downshifted by the intense competition afforded by yet further others – those yet more distant and far more strange than even the neighbor who votes for the other party – the deeper source of marginality is the very history of internal colonization and the sheer geography of a land unlike anything one’s ancestors could have imagined. A big land required a big god, required a big man, required a big stick. But did it require a big State, a big heart, a big purse? Perhaps in contradiction with itself, the USA got all of those aspects of largeness, amongst others. ‘Very well, I contain multitudes’, Whitman famously writes at the moment the Alleghenies were pierced by the new industry. Whitman is known as the first truly modern American artist precisely because he recognizes the other inside of himself. In our own age, and contrary to any idea that emanated from that previous, otherness is not something distant, obscure, inhuman, and necessarily defined by existential threat, of whatever nature the corresponding variables may have been in one historical context to the next. But both the language and the countenance of this Great Awakening promoted the old ideas once again to the fore. With just as great an irony, the nation that was once the radical hope of the enlightened world in two centuries would risk becoming a caricature of itself.
This is why the act of understanding the other must come before that very other, in reaction to our malicious mocking and vindictive vitriol, makes herself into the very caricature we had all along presumed her to be. The rioters at DC were the self-fulfilling prophecy imagined by all those who had marginalized them over the decades. We tend to make our own enemies, most especially, of ourselves. This is why the act precedes the art, just as an apprenticeship comes before any supposed mastery. We are not asking each other to become such masters overnight. Rather, we are proposing the modest endeavor of authentically trying to comprehend what the other really needs, what they think of the world, who they imagine themselves to be. That this is the essence of any human relationship should not be lost on us. For the others are also married, are also working, are also trying to ‘make their own meaning’ in the face of powerfully anonymous forces which are far beyond any individual’s control. The sense that globalization is alone the wedge that drives the West apart from itself is simply another way of pushing off on a yet stranger other the responsibility for self-understanding. If my neighbor is, after all, not my enemy, then the Chinese person is, the Indian person, the Muslim. These ‘strangers at the gates’, to allude to Kipling once again, have, like the rioters, found their way into our way of life. But they are who they are, and not caricatures, not neighbors in the narrow sense. So we must extend the sense of self-understanding, and the only manner of doing so is by augmenting what was originally a religious ethics with that of post-religious thought.
In book three of my new trilogy, the newly conjoined Queen Guinevere’s final words to the major narrative heroine, telling her at once of the state of her own lover as well as the state of our contemporary love in general, are as follows: “She is alive but you must not delay. The power she has is munificent, but the power they have is not based on one soul, however great. It is known that Dvorak said of Brahms, ‘such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes in nothing.’ Take heed of this mischance, modernity, and choose carefully your nothing.” Our conception of love, and who is worthy of it, are endangered. It is because we have severe doubts regarding our own worthiness and on both counts; are we deserving of love and our we the ones who can love? ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ always carried this deeper caveat: it assumes one can love oneself. This is the ‘as’. Then again, to imagine that only we are worthy of love, our own or that of another, is to conflate the abstract ethic with the practical act. It is to submerge a revolutionary sensibility back into a revelationary discourse. What is appropriately ‘revealed’ by relatively freeing ethics from metaphysics is not religion but rather otherness, both internal to self and external in the other to self. Loving oneself includes the task of understanding that we are not one thing, singular, stable, secure in our knowledge of the world. Our global rivals have shed their own parochiality enough to step onto the world stage. Is it either reasonable or ethical that we shrink back before their example and turn inward, replacing what they were with ourselves?
Enjoin then the act of understanding, which discloses to one’s own being not merely the presence of the other as if she were a distraction or an annoyance, a threat mortal or otherwise, but in fact the authenticity of humanity in its diversity and in its similarity. For in the end we are both like and unlike the other. We may also like and dislike them, just as we already know that we too are likeable on one day, the other on another. Choosing carefully our unbelief includes the ability to comprehend that belief of some sort remains relevant. Even so, of whatever ethic it may promote, the otherness of the other, the difference within, must become a part thereof. The currently faithless faith in ourselves travels with us only until we reach the limen over which otherness dwells. Today, that threshold is what separates the neighbor that must be, and not the stranger that she has previously been.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.
The Religion of Criminality
With the news that various faith-based organizations across the nation are flouting by-laws regarding mass assembly, the old tension between church and state has resurrected itself, apropos, given the time of year. For me, it was always to be expected that so-called evangelicals would be at the vanguard of this kind of passive-aggressive resistance to both civility and citizenship, but when Wheatley Ontario’s Mennonites began to jump in, my own quasi-ethnic background surfaced to bite on my own conscience. Not in a serious manner, but just enough to both condemn these erstwhile brethren as well as wonder why they might be engaging in what amounts to a public health menace. No true Christian would ever knowingly put his neighbor at risk. And while it is easier to dismiss the neo-fascist fake Christians as being simply that, when it comes to Menno Simons’ followers the issue appears more nuanced. Why so?
My own father left home at seventeen, lied about his age and joined the RCN to fight in the Battle of the Atlantic. For the pacifist Mennonites this was more than a scandal. Not only was one engaging in violence but also doing so at the behest of the state, the historical victor over the church, all churches. This paradoxical effort at liberation in part allowed me, decades later, to become who I now am, a critical social philosopher, something that in the rearward facing climes of warmed-over old world beliefs would simply not have been imaginable. I owe my father much on that account. Even so, it is an odd paradox that the one who seeks freedom from the state shares much with the thinker, whose loyalty is also to something other than ideology and citizenship. The Greeks replaced myth with science, language transitioned from mythos to logos, and thus the gods were supplanted by thought itself. Sophia, herself the goddess of wisdom, was kind of like a mole in Greek mythology, unraveling the mythic tapestry from within, unlike Prometheus, who suffered endlessly because though he was also humanity’s ally, he pushed the revolution along from without.
My father was an insider who went outside. I would never return to complete a personal circle, as it were, but at the same time, I understand the confluence that lies between those whose loyalty is to some higher being, however imaginary or no, and someone like myself, whose loyalty is to what I take to be a higher sensibility; ethics, rationality, reason, interpretation, reflection, critique. Philosophy is, after all, the child of religious thought, just as science is the child of religious myth. The Wheatley group have been engaging in the critique of the state even if they have also been engaged in unethical, even criminal, activity. This is no mere ‘civil’ disobedience on their parts. It is manifestly uncivil to place others at a health risk, especially those who do not agree to be so placed. Is it too much to believe that every single person in this or that congregation would only and ever associate with the remainder of said congregation, day in day out, forever and ever, or at least, until all are vaccinated? This kind of leap of faith is actually more of a chasm than even a belief in God, whose being, after all, is not disproven by science, merely rolled back, much in the same manner as is religious explanation curtailed in its territory by that scientific.
It is not a leap that I am willing to make. The local public authorities must get much more serious about stopping such assemblies. They can even use Christian ethics to support their legal efforts. Why do the vast majority of churches meet on-line, when all of them would ideally meet in person? This alone dispels any far-fetched rationale that only a very few churches – say in the rural Fraser Valley of BC and in similar areas within Ontario and Quebec, for instance – have the ‘true’ message of their God in their hearts. No, these folks are simply using religion to commit a crime, and in doing so, have placed themselves on the same spectrum as the likes of the Taliban. How far will they go in their delusion of being persecuted? Maybe we should ask the average Afghani to predict what the thin edge of the wedge can really mean when people use their fraudulent faith as a cloak for their more naked desire for power.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, health, education ,aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.
In Defence of Pornography as a Theatre of Human Freedom
In the Mad-TV satire ‘What Men Want’, a woman steps into the original Mel Gibson role as the gender-reversed script ambles along its expected course, this time with the woman being able to hear the men’s innermost thoughts in her own head. The answer is simple, and in one scene, where the narrator says farewell to her dying grandfather, she intones: ‘I’ll miss you grandpa’. He replies, ‘I’ll miss you too, sweetie – (then silently) But not as much as I’ll miss porn!’. For men in particular this could be interpreted as a ‘me too’ moment, but however that may be, I will argue in the following why society as a whole might well miss pornography and erotica more than we may at first imagine.
My experience with pornography-erotica, call it what you will, tells me I am consuming an aspect of base culture. As theatre, mostly plotless and with acting culled from an underground high school yearbook activity, it receives a solid ‘D’ rating. As sex itself, it is dull, stereotyped, unimaginative and attempts to win one over – whatever that may entail – with grandstanding (mostly) youth showing off. It is no surprise that, as with athletics, anything that so intensely involves the body as a physical vehicle should be the basic preserve of youth. And sadly, in our society, this is mostly what youth have to offer; their pristine and charming physiques. Pornography is in all aspects juvenile, from its representations of youth by those far older to its motives. It is at source about money and not about sex, so it is also essentially dishonest. Given this, why defend it at all?
Though it cannot be defended as an aesthetic object, I suggest that it must be defended as an ethical one. At first, this seems a contradiction. While art is likely the highest expression of human freedom, attaining a status that transcends even history by communicating perennial truths of the human condition to and from diverse periods and variations thereof, the portrayal of sexuality alone speaks at best only of desire and passion. What is missing in pornography is the Gestalt of humanity; its passions, some certainly present, but also its compassions, which are wholly absent; its desires yes, but also alongside, its anxieties. It is therefore also not an ethical ‘object’. But what pornography does contain is a potent ethical objection to the self-imposed limitations we humans have a tendency to exert upon ourselves and others. Working from the simple premise that if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out – turn off the e-device but only for thine own self – any ethical objection to that which serves to place social norms and institutional orders into perspective must be applied first to one’s own self-understanding. As soon as it attempts to dictate what others shalt or shalt not do it strays over the line of ethics and into the space of fascism. And this is precisely the line that any call for the policing of the viewing of pornography based on age-related limits is doing.
Creeping fascism always plays the same tired game, and it is astonishing that, given recent history, we are still attracted to it. ‘I’m not trying to shut the porn industry down, I’m only trying to protect our children.’ In Canada, anyone twelve years old and above is legally entitled to have actual sex. There are a few reasonable age restrictions between twelve to fifteen, but the principal is clear. Youth (12-17) is its own category under Canadian law, as distinct from children (2-11). The fact that youth are no longer subject to being forced into surrogate sex with adults through corporal punishment underscores this separation. France remains a rare European country that has not banned this practice, so is it surprising that it is one country cited in the above article that seeks to ban viewing of sexual material by minors? For the French, apparently, youth are to remain sexual objects in the service of adults and can have little or no sexual agency of their own. Canadians are better than that, and by ‘better’, I mean, more ethical. The call to criminalize youth sexuality is both a regression and an expression of adult ressentiment specifically against the hard fact of the loss of our own youth and the future of humanity more generally. But by calling attention to the nostalgic and altogether deliberately naïve idea that young people are somehow not sexual beings and need to be ‘protected’ from sexuality until they are eighteen, the fascist attempts to take on the guise of guardian angel. ‘Save the children!’ He cries, from themselves, from evil adults, from evil itself!
Anyone who agrees with this kind of suggestion is committing the ethical error of projecting one’s own vain desires onto young persons. Pornography too exhibits these desires – ‘discipline’ sites are the most obvious expression thereof; why else would we be attracted to the idea that youthful looking actors should portray the very minors we are supposedly seeking to protect? Why would such roles always be those that require such discipline: physical, sexual, and political? – and in so doing it provides young people with an important insight: we adults want to harm you because you represent all that we have lost, including beauty, guilelessness, openness, and spirit. We might even hate you, but alas, direct hate crime is already illegal in Canada and thus we must express our dark passions in another way: limit your freedom, your sexual liberation, your mischievous fun. Portray you as disobedient pests who, if you can no longer be beaten in reality, at least you can be allegorized as being beaten in virtuality. Just so, to suppress your knowledge of how we actually think of you is one of the core reasons for banning youth access to pornography.
All fascists fear exposure of their true desires. These include ultimate control and the possession of a singular authority. They too know God is dead, but unlike more modest persons, they’re quite willing to fill in with the hope of making it a permanent situation. Hence the real ‘creeps’ in our society are not so much the relatively rare on-line child ‘groomers’ or molesters but rather the much less rare closet fascist who shows us just enough flesh so that we are distracted from noting the bones in behind him. He always begins with seemingly the most reasonable premise and this ‘foot in the door’ technique is also dishonest: ‘our children are vulnerable’ (And why so? Because we tend to control and baby them beyond their years lived). He uses seemingly reasonable analogies which turn out to be spurious: ‘films have limited access’ (In public only. Anyone can view an R-rated film without the fear of invasive criminalization in private and internet viewing is always already in private). He leaves out his true demands: ‘I’m only talking violent porn, here’ (in age-restricting porn sites you lose access to all porn, not just the minor percentage of it that might qualify as ‘violent’). He represents himself as reasonable: ‘I know this is a delicate topic’ (So was the so-called Jewish Question). The limits which are in place walk the actually delicate line between impinging upon hard-won and truly fragile democratic freedoms and the advice of child development experts and discourses: here’s some warnings and judge accordingly; some children might be disturbed by this or that material, others not, or yet some parents themselves might be warned off. Indeed, if I were to support age-restrictions on sexual material I would place them between the ages of 12 and 40. Anyone under or over those ages would not be permitted to view it. On the one hand because, according to the American Psychiatric Association, childhood ends at age 12 in important and specifically sexual ways – their definition of pedophilia, for instance, runs as ‘having a prurient interest in children under twelve’ – and on the other, mature adults need to focus on saving the planet and its life, including one another. Enough distraction, enough fantasy. Pornography is an education, of sorts, and it is at best trite to state that reality and fantasy are seldom the same thing. The world is in the shape it is in not because youth cannot distinguish between the two of them. Ask yourself why it took a sixteen year old with a disability to call our wider attention to the climate crisis? Ask your very much adult stockbroker, financier, captain of industry, or wonder of wonders, politician, why it wasn’t they who provided such an alert, amongst others. And then we can ask why yet other adults willingly take on the role of domineering Lydias – a role that is, with ironic relish, only barely admissible within the fantasy of discipline-oriented pornography – intent on correcting our bad habits without respect to our freedoms. An educative pornography might well include titles such as the all too obvious ‘Handmaid’s Tail’ by Marguerite Göttwood, in which such self-proclaimed defenders of ‘morality’ can bare yet more of their sorry selves.
If one wanted to construct a genuine ethical argument against the decoys of contemporary social life, pornography included, I would be the first to entertain it. It would first have to outline the activities sanctioned by society that distract us from both the existential profundity of human life as well as the future of our collective existence. These are: organized sports (ironically a ‘must’ for youth, supposedly), all non-critical entertainment fictions and video games (Atwood not included), erotica/pornography, holidays both consumer and religious – and, speaking of reality and fantasy, is it really the case that we can distinguish such days? – conspiracy ‘theories’ of all kinds, obsessions with speculative, if, in principle interesting, topics such as extraterrestrial intelligence and ‘paranormal’ events, and the like. At the top of such a list of unethical attempts to divert our attention from serious global conditions would be our neurotic compulsion to rationalize our resentment of youth.
If made, such an argument would be valid across the ethical board. But the message we send to both present-day youth and future society alike is that we, bereft of both conscience and foresight, have instead opted to suppress the curiosity, the spirit, the very existential verve of young people who, robbed of their nascent capacity to think for themselves through schools, media, and portions of the legal apparatus perhaps to be extended, will be unable to avoid the very fate we have already set out for them. This satisfies us as well, for it will not be we ourselves who have to live in the denuded future of a well-raped Earth. Youth will pay simply for being young.
The call to limit youthful experience of the world in any way, no matter how juvenile the material or knowledge, only adds to the sense that we have given up on an ethical human future. Shutting it down ahead of time, exerting a pre-emptive strike against the coming freedom of world youth, is the evil privilege of adulthood. And adults are, in fact, old enough to know that we either use it or lose it. We betray our truer selves as maliciously resentful oversized children in its use.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.
Who was that Unmasked Man?
The concept of authority is a much troubled one for we moderns. In the previous age, power amongst human beings was certainly brandished in a more subjective fashion, often based on personalist traits including the apparently vanished ‘charisma’, which the social scientist Max Weber implied could not exist in modernity. There was a corresponding paucity of rational mechanisms for the exertion of power by way of achieved or accrued status. Heritable station, even caste, was enough to endow some and deny many the necessary stakes in social life with which to maintain a viable existence. Though we are suspicious of authority in all its forms, we do pride ourselves in leveling the field to an extent that most persons in wealthy countries can at least live without daily fear of sickness and death.
Why then, if we are aware of this transformation from what now appears to us as the patent unreason of a culture masking itself as a fraudulent nature – perhaps the final residue of this older worldview pertains to eugenics and ‘race’ theory, though any reductivist applied science skirts it at its peril; neuroscience, sociobiology, cognitive therapy – do we also consistently maintain an oft unreasoned skepticism regarding the space and status of modern authority? Why, given the seemingly obvious sensibility that an illness can be transmitted in this way or that, would some of us shun the equally obvious precautions? More than this, immediately declare that such passing modifications to daily life are a symptom of a deeper and darker recess within which authority conspires to dominate the world at large?
The ‘strange bedfellows’ of politics aside, the resistance to the wearing of masks and practicing the so-called ‘social distance’ hails from the margins of mass democratic statehood. Small time evangelicals, neo-fascist militias, conspiracy ‘theorists’ of many stripes and streaks, even some neo-conservatives who feel abandoned by their chosen political representatives populate this pastiche. Who, exactly, are these fellow citizens, and why do they appear to differ from the vast majority of us along these sudden lines? Is the anti-mask affair merely a convenient hitching post where a number of unrelated horses may be tied during a tavern tabernacle? Is it a question of metaphor; a mask denies part of our identity, for instance, or is likened to a political muzzle? It certainly hasn’t taken long for advertisers to take advantage of this additional apparel ‘accessory’, given many masks now sport logos of various kinds. If there is a semi-conscious sense that a mask inhibits my personhood, many people have taken to creative work-arounds that still proclaim something about themselves they think it is worth others’ while to know, kind of like a removable tattoo.
But not everyone. Authority in its contemporary issue is at once loosed from above and below alike. Above due to the apparent absence of godhead, and below, due to the problems of direct political representation. One the one hand, there is no ‘higher’ authority than the State, a difficult pill to swallow for many of us, myself as a thinker included. I would like to be able to say, ‘no, truth is itself the highest authority’, or more murkily, ‘art’, or ‘the good’. That the neighbor takes precedence over the socius, that my justice overtakes that of the law, that my ethical life exists beyond the general ken of rationalized morals, and so on. Aside from its claim to possess a monopoly of force, the State also declares itself to be the final court of both accusation and appeal. On the other hand, its presence, like the Leviathan, is to be taken as given and might only be indirectly questioned through regime change by way of the electoral process. Seen in its naked fraudulence, already less dressed than its predecessor the Church, the State is easy to unmask. That we understand our governments to wear the mask of responsibility – and sometimes even live up to this general theater in a convincing manner – is to also comprehend that they are not what they seem to be. So if the one who already wears the mask and is known to be other than it is demands that we too now don this same article, is that not to tell us that we must become yet more like the State in our private lives?
We do hear the cliché refrain about the ‘nanny state’ within the fragmented voices of the anti-mask huzzah. Ask the same people about EI and healthcare etc. and there might be a different response. But bracketing this ever-present irony, I think that these protesters must view the State as something that is mysterious, a persona like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, to use some old-fashioned examples, but one which is magnified into a monstrous form. The Lone Ranger, from whose juvenile script the title of this piece is paraphrased, is, with further irony, a persona who would in fact appeal to the anti-maskers. They appear to see themselves as more individual than the rest of us, more self-reliant, more heroic, and evidently also more immune, even to non-human forms of life. If we were merely jaded, the entire affair would appear only as an ongoing cliché, the evil state making yet more demands upon freedom-loving individuals.
Not only is this dull it is also dimwitted. One, no member of mass society can claim to be free in this way. Our individual freedom in the public realm is immensely limited, simply because of the existence of others. Respecting this is in fact an act of free will and a recognition of it as a principle of human life, as in doing so, we grant the freedom of others to also reassure us of our human status. To do otherwise is to set oneself apart from one’s fellows, however and otherwise strange they may be, and claim that only a certain few should be ‘free’ and the rest of us can go to the wall. Two, if there truly is a serious concern about civil liberties that too is addressed by not by making exceptions but by giving the other the courtesy to live with the best chance of being unassailed by health concerns. Freedom, in its ethical essence, consists of being a vehicle for the freedom of others.
That the State must demand this of us can only be put down our own lack of ethical awareness. But organizing a symptom of such interaction amongst citizens is not the same as defining what freedom is or is not. A mask is metaphoric also in this way; it does not pretend to be the reality of mass society, only its appearance; anonymous and impersonal, generally non-responsible and always flirting with authoritarianism. The reality of our existence remains, as ever, within our own conscience. No decisions are being taken from us. When I forget my mask in my car on the way to the grocery store I duly return and retrieve it. I have done so uncounted times already as we are creatures of daily habit. Why I do so is another matter. I want to be one momentary vehicle for the freedom of the other. I do not want to ‘set an example’, ‘toe the line’, mock the other or chide her for her own neglect. And I do not desire to make myself mysterious; indeed, I am the less so because others observe my action as consistent with the otiose demands of the day. I have nothing to hide in wearing a mask, in the same way I might wear clothes, or that I might drive defensively, or that I limit my glance at an ‘attractive’ woman to a good-natured and discreet one-off. Perhaps I could do yet more to this last regard and many others, but the mask-wearing should be seen in the same light as all the other trifling things we do to make life easier and to let others know that we’re on their side no matter how ludicrous the effect.
Freedom is itself a modern conception. One cannot imagine that modernity turns its back on its own native child. It is true that this birth, so cherished, has not lived up to its expectations, but what child does? Freedom is such a recent idea that one cannot expect it to manifest its historical genius overnight and over against the countless eons within which even its herald could not exist. I would suggest that anyone who has doubts about authority and feels his freedom impinged upon examine the critical threshold over which conformity becomes truly dangerous. I’d also like to say, ‘I’ll let you know’, but in fact each of us is charged with the task of confronting authority at every turn. It’s only the professional job of the thinker to do so; more profoundly, it is the birthright of all human beings. More than this, it is the working side of human freedom, which is absolutely not a given, as is the State, and which can only be made real through our being’s resoluteness, its being-ahead, and its receptivity to the call of conscience. Freedom, like history more widely, is both a gift and a task. The unmasked man of resistance in reality resists the work necessary for freedom to become authentic. Only in this authenticity can we in turn unmask any fraudulent attempt at truth, the enforced freedoms of institutions, for instance, or more personally, the beliefs we imagine overtake those same institutions, almost all of which arose in ages wherein human freedom was non-existent. The unimpressive irony of the anti-mask associates betrays its lack of historical consciousness precisely along these lines; that it seeks freedom from modern authority through the use of older and likely imaginary authorities that would, if left unconstrained, demolish every last bit of human freedom we have painstakingly attained over the past four centuries. Thus the mask I wear protects me from far more than just a virus.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen
Turned out the simple life, weren’t so simple
When I got out on that road. (Van Halen 1978).
In his Smithsonian Institution interview, Van Halen spoke of the immigrant story, of a family thrown into an alien world, back in 1962 when the to-be-virtuoso guitarist was a mere seven years old. Not speaking English was the greatest barrier at first, but there would be others. A study in contrasts that nevertheless ended up making eminent sense, Van Halen’s life was defined at the outset as an American dream; unlikely, hard-working, persistent, celebrated, resented, and ultimately cut short by the perennially pallid penury of professional entertainment. He spoke of their debut album, which went on to sell more than ten million copies and usher in a new kind of popular music that blended the angst of punk and the romance of the dance floor, as being the beginning of experience, of lost innocence: ‘we cut a best-selling album, went on a sold-out tour for a year, and when we got back the record company told me, congratulations, you owe us a new album and three million dollars.’
No life can be said to be simple, no matter what it might look like from without. A musical hero, however brilliant and with an impulsive and improvisatory genius however breathtaking, remains human. And yet that is what I always felt was so compelling about Van Halen’s guitar playing; its resonant humanity. Hendrix was god-like, and one could be forgiven if one imagined that he was something more than human. Howe is distant, unforgiving, beautiful in the way great art is and yet oddly removed from the heart of things. Clapton guttural and bitter, abrasive and sometimes even smug. McLaughlin a single strike through the conscience of consciousness, transporting the listener quite literally to ‘visions beyond’. Metheny cool, even chill, the perfection of a sculptor who renders his music as if it could retain its sonic solidity indefinitely. Of all the virtuosos that come easily to mind, only Eric Johnson, like Van Halen, comes across as a great human being first, his humanity guiding the music and creating an over-souled bond with the listener.
But Van Halen’s perfection came in the midst of mayhem, banality, and a musical form that would not, at first glance, be a likely birthplace for virtuoso genius. Compared with the other great electric players in the above paragraph, Van Halen as a band was the bread and butter, meat and potatoes variety of music. This too made Edward Van Halen stand out without forcing him to stand apart. Millions showed to see him first, as the feature, the lead, the hero, the star. In the most unlikely of places we are struck by the exactitude of his solos – perhaps the most obvious example would be the utter perfection exhibited in ‘Somebody get me a Doctor’ (1979) wherein we are transfixed by seemingly the only series of notes that could elevate a throw-away song into something we would play over and over again; but there are many others – and if Van Halen as a performing act often came across as rock and roll’s answer to Barnum and Bailey, its bombast always had the good graces to never take itself so seriously as to vanish up its own posterior, as did many – if not all – of the biggest acts previous to them.
I was one of uncounted teenage guitar players fascinated by Van Halen’s technical innovations, attempting to mimic them and feeling inordinately proud when I even came close. And though we are aware that both Hendrix and Hackett regularly used the right-handed ‘hammer-on’ move, for instance, it was Van Halen who perfected it and let it transform the guitar into a broader musical palette. His instrument was inseparable from his person, prefiguring the relations of production in the as yet mythical communism of Marx and Engels, when they speak of the ‘authenticity of the product of labor’. In this too Van Halen was a visionary, and the intriguing mix of juvenilia and critical politics to be found in the actual song-writing of the band is suggestive of a manner of speaking to youth of the difference between things that matter now and those that matter for all time, of some things that matter as much to a mature human life as we as young people might imagine does romance, sex, relationships, money and fame. The band and its blueprint appear to be an essay in confrontation, but by now, after long having the entirety of their catalogue within easy grasp, the whole of what Van Halen was really about appears without such blur.
And what this whole is, is a kind of freedom from needless and mindless restraint, rule, form and norm. It isn’t simple, just as a human life can never be. To attain a sense of one’s life is to have the courage to get past what has been the past, something that Van Halen never ceased to accomplish. This is the greater freedom of historical being; that history is not yet done. It is a freedom that celebrates its true cause by singing the praises of its passing effects. A freedom that speaks to each generation when it is most receptive of listening, but one which also hopes that in a more sober stage of existence all of us will begin to heed its call and take life itself to be the open and powerful instrument of popular art that Edward Van Halen took to be his own.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
A Speculative Spectrality
In a world with much jostling and grinding daily, one can easily overlook the older anxiety that concerned itself with ‘bumps in the night’. Of late, however, several nocturnal images have appeared that attempt to suggest that these our latter days are not fully free of our ancestors’ imaginations as well as, perhaps, their fears. Though the images reproduced here presumably could have been faked – and we also presume most persons would simply presume that they have been so – the question that remains is why such imagery? This is not a question about why would someone fake an intriguing image, but specifically, why this kind of image, one that purports to represent either ethereal beings or creatures ‘unknown to science’, to use an antiquely appropriate period phrase.
The first image, which one would think was a vintage doll of some kind – though the deer seems transfixed by its presence; perhaps the doll was sprayed with an attractive scent – represents a ‘ghost’ or spirit. The use of a child is meant to promote a willing sympathy, a female child a sense of vulnerability or yet incompetence. If such a child were really lost in the woods most persons would attempt an immediate rescue. But how do you rescue a ghost? And from what? Having suffered the most grievous crisis known to mortal being, what more could have befallen her? And from such questions, however rhetorical, comes the more pressing question: what is to happen to us? What, in other words, is the meaning of my death?
It is to this existential anxiety that such images seek address. Not in any abstract manner, since the doll or whatever it may be represents a singular vision and, along with the other creature, an alternative to known beings. I am neither a child nor female, and I am from our own time, when girls are not normally dressed in such vestments. If the first image is anything, it is personal. Even if it is a material fraud, we are forced to identify with its spiritual implications. We know there have been those who have passed before us. Into what? Where? Or if nowhere, what is the zero character of nothingness? We know we too will pass before our youth, other things being equal, and thus we also have already seen, in life, our own autobiographical youth pass before us. I doubt I’ll end up lost in the woods, ethereally incarnated in some regressed form. Indeed, those were the halcyon days of my childhood, wandering in the woods, unmolested by anyone or anything, long before deer cams were invented. Given that, if each of us tends towards their own paradise, an eternity on the beaches and in the forests of my homeland awaits me.
Seeking attention in life, creating a sensation, committing a prank just for the sake of it, are some humanly material activities that the advent of digital communications have augmented. In the day of the proposed child in the image, a campfire story would be the result of a chance encounter with the unexplained or yet-to-be more lucidly understood. These are minor expressions of the basic will to life that mortal being accrues over that very life course.
But what if what animates this questioning consciousness also has its own evolution? What if the existence of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ were not at all perennial but rather a ‘secular trend’? This phrase, a term from evolutionary biology, refers to factors which influence the adaptation of regional populations, such as sickle cell anemia. Here, let us propose a species-wide secularity, one that separated us from our more indirect hominid ancestry. We know, for instance, that memorial rites date from the earliest period of anatomically modern human’s existence, some three hundred millennia ago, first discovered, I think, in Anatolia. Durkheim suggests that the work of mourning is the origin of all human memory. In recalling those now passed to themselves, early humans, our most ancient direct ancestors, had made the connection between existence and its trademark conscious and acting life. What they did not do was to extend that logic to non-existence. Instead, ‘inexistence’ was imagined as being the other state into which being could enter pending the completion of materiality. We do not know any details of the thinking of these first fully human beings. It is something we can never know, and in that, this absence of the origin of thought mirrors the absence of thought’s ends. Just as we cannot experience our own deaths, yet we must experience the abstraction of death through the lives of others who confront it before we ourselves must. Both the beginning and the end are obscure to us. We do not choose to be born and, in any general sense, we also do not choose to die.
If the spirit exists – this is a different, though obviously related, question to that of whether or not ‘spirits’, like the ones purported to be in the images in question, exist – its existence is something that should mirror our understanding of how we ourselves exist, since our spirit is said to be the very essence of our being. Humans are an evolved creature, like all others of which we know. Each part of our complicated and holistically interacting systems has evolved, in current understanding, ‘directly’ for something over seven millions of years. We, perhaps with some vanity, attribute to humanity a soaring spiritude, something that is complex and evolved, however mature it has become or may yet become. Such an ‘organ’, such an aspect of being which partakes of evolutionary Being, could very well have a lengthy pedigree, which might also include other states. Yet if one’s own spirit develops as does one’s own body, then we truly cringe at the possibility – not necessarily ever captured by technology – that a child’s soul, cut out of its living mass before its time, wanders alone and lonely across the exsanguinated expanse of an anonymous world.
Such imagery that sources itself in our existential questions has a unique, even uncanny power. It is this that we react to, if such haunting or poignant pseudo-portraits give us the spine-tingling moment of sudden self-recognition. If it were the case – and we must remind ourselves that there is no empirical evidence either way regarding such mysteries – that not only the spirit exists but also develops and continues, then we too as living spirits must seek to undertake our own ends. By this I mean that we not only should be prepared to risk our current comprehension of the cosmos in order to widen our conscious aperture, but we should also begin to critically entertain the ancient idea that though there can be nothing larger than life whilst life exists, that there may be more to life than our extant life is willing to admit to itself.
Without dwelling on the phantasmagorical, the most searching interrogative that such imagery confronts us with is the ethical question of the character of our existence as it is known. How do we live and why do we do so in this way? What is the meaning of my existence, and why do I generally avoid asking such a question? The proposal that we may be more than we can know can be taken quite literally, and without resort to other states or ideas of an afterlife. We each of us is indeed more than we merely have been. The pressing and rather material question concerning whether or not we can be that being, the being of the future and not of the past, is quite simply the most important question of our shared existence.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.