Is Wholly Rational Action Realizable?

Is Wholly Rational Action Realizable?

This to you, who lives beyond my reach and ken

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

                        I cannot breast such love as my heart now and then

                        Breaks itself upon the shore that also crushes bone

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

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

                        No longer will love be known as ever that

                        Extant between the fair and fairer seen

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

                        Laying underneath all two-souled color been

                        These souls have given up their claim, their pat

                        Clamor against which I have plugged by ears atween

                        Enter thus! I both command and commend to thee

                        So that we may port your soul and souled asunder

                        Split as is the heavens by the lighted scree

                        Split as were my eyes and ears and lips by thunder

                        Such storms as these will ever question me

                        So I shall ne’er accept the loot of blunder

                        Enter thus, I beg you in loving supplication

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

                        Even my offal, but not awful urination

                        Meant no disrespect but only that with I would strike

                        Down all who overlook our human situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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