The Wokeness Monster

The Wokeness Monster (Lives in a lake near you).

            If you go down to the woods today, you’ll be in for a big surprise: there’s nothing there. The remaining trees arc majestically in the breeze, their canopy verdant with both life and limb, the deer skittish at our presence, the bear blithe, the wolf skeptical, the cougar only half-interested, being a cat after all. But in a nearby lake, something untoward doth lurk. Only ever peripherally glimpsed, its form a mere parallax to reality, yet fully imagined as real, this monster dwells in a vanity of self-deprecation as much as in the absence of a mature being resolute.

            Wait a minute! Hold it right there. Did you just say, ‘the remaining trees’? What kind of woker-than-woke statement is that? Are you some kind of tree-hugging wolf-kissing Subaru-driving hippyesque liberal? I’m quitting here then. No, I really am; I’m walking, just watch me! Mom’s meter-less taxi awaits my pilot. Oh, okay then, continue.

            Though it is the case that the sardonic co-opting of the ungrammatical term ‘Woke’ – originally referring to a kind of enlightened state of political being kindred with the other awakenings haling from American religious history – by its critics represents something mean-spirited and lazy, I am going to suggest that in fact it is those who are so labeled who have done much more lasting damage to not merely the idiom but far worse, to the idea of enlightenment itself. For the followers of this fashionable flaneur are the Wokeness monster.

            The lynchpin of this sensibility is that one’s social location creates one’s perception. The genesis of this idea may be found in Vico’s ‘New Science’, of 1725, and it was given its most modern formulation in Marx and Engels’ ‘The German Ideology’, of 1846, in which the now legendary statement ‘consciousness is itself a social product’ may be seen as key. It is important to recall that this book was not published until 1932, as its authors could not find a publisher who would take it on. Daily, I feel their pain. And for me, aside from my books’ contents, the fact that I am manifestly not ‘Woke’ scares the fastidiously fashionable presses away. No, according to this locational position, I am nothing other than a middle-aged professional white straight Euro-male, and thus have absolutely nothing of merit to say to anyone. In short, I am not a person.

            It is this depersonalization that an over-reliance on social location brings to the human being which sabotages both ethics abroad and conscience at home. The idea that selfhood should only be composed of the happenstance confluence of social variables is indeed a patent evil in the face of existential integrity. For the self is what is gained when such chance factors are overcome, and not at all the outcome of their continued presence. We, as human beings, are more than the sum of our parts. Our consciousness has evolved to be that Gestalt, a melody, and not a mere series of notes. Similarly, our culture too has evolved to be a harmony, and not a random collection of sounds and of late, mere noises.

            To adhere to the sense that all you are and all you ever can be is dictated in some deterministic fashion by external structures and normative strictures is not only to do fatal disservice to one’s own humanity, worse, it is to frame the other as dehumanized. And this in spite of the apparent grave concern such framers have for ‘the other’ and even ‘otherness’! Yet this is precisely what the followers of ‘Woke’ take pride in doing; self-sabotage and the sabotage of the Self. The former might be forgivable if one is an addict, has a serious mental illness, or was abused as a child, and then only for oneself. The latter has no pinion, no remediating quality, no possible heuristic, damaged and aborted as these other concernful cases are. It has only the juvenile legerdemain of the one who lingers enthralled to what by the original definition of Woke is the very opposite of enlightenment and awareness. I would go so far to say that given this; such a sensibility is more of a malingering than anything else. It represents in many cases perhaps a knowing avoidance of personhood.

            Why would one desire to remain a mere thing in the world of things? To deny the very essence of what one is as a member of the human species? I will suggest here that it is simply due to the reality of a world which now asks of each of us to become more than what we have ever been before; more mature, more responsible, more quick-witted, more conscientious, more aware, and that for many, and that for especially the young, this demand of the world as it is, is so scary as to be unimaginable. And thus, to be Woke in today’s sense is to be fearful of one’s own authentic being and far more fatal, to give over the fate of the future to each and every limit that has made the human past such a present burden.

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

The Trouble with Tribal

The Trouble with Tribal (Regression in self-identity)

            Any time we imagine that our selfhood is in majority defined by what we are rather than who we are, we risk the loss of that very selfhood. We have already spoken of one level of this self-misrecognition, that of the life-chance variable. These factors, such as gender, age, level of education, socio-economic status and such-like, certainly influence, sometimes to a great degree when combined with one another, an individual’s ability to access resources, gain employment, marry up or down, as well as one’s longevity. Just so, they are factors that impinge upon our personhood, they do not define it. We are, at our best and most developed in terms of worldview, singular souls who must come to terms with our own finitude. At once, this condition allows us to share intimately the pith of what it means to both be and to become human, and this is of the species-essence, while confronting the equally profound, though this time existential, situatedness of being a thrown project into the world and ‘running along’ towards mine ownmost death. Avoiding either of these means evading them both, and the most common, and also base, manner of doing so, is hanging one’s existential hat up upon the tribal peg.

            More ancient than modern life-chance variables, and therefore sometimes more potent to the unconscious mind, are traditional factors such as language group, ethnicity, region of birth, sex rather than gender, caste rather than class. These variables, some almost primordial for human beings, influence us at a deep level, often escaping conscious reflection. Far easier it is to identify through analysis the roadblocks present in our lives due to contemporary features of organizational and family life, aspects of our social role panoply that would include wealth and social status, ability to ‘pass’ as a member of a certain class or professional group, and so on. These are factors which could be said to be ‘in hand’; they are present or absent along the lines of how we can use them in the day to day. I lost a major status when I retired from the academy, as well as major wealth. These were easy to understand and were even partly measurable. But the deeper and thus more disconcerting loss was of my personal identity, for I had made the ethical error of making too close an alignment between my profession and my person. Though this is a commonplace mistake – I am what I do for a living – it results in existential avoidance that, if there is a life-change at hand, one must then confront rather nakedly and without guidance.

            I witnessed, before I retired, a number of older colleagues who exhibited what could only be referred to as an abject terror at the prospect. They really were what their work life had made them into. There could be no future vision from such a vantage point. This was one minor factor influencing my own decision-making at the time; I didn’t want to end up like them! And even though it took a few years, I have remade my professional identity. That was, it turned out, the easier part, which underscores the point we are making here. More challenging was extricating my personal selfhood from that professional. The ego was a major instigator of the desire to hang on to the latter. From having a built-in audience transfixed by one’s every word – on a good day – to possessing the ability to possess through relatively unlimited consumption, to being called ‘professor’ or ‘doctor’ innumerable times a day, all of this contributed mightily to the sense that this must be who I am, as it felt so good. This ‘goodness’ was in fact a mark against my character; the one who is moved by praise and power alone. Before entering into an Augustinian retrospective, I have maintained some of this sensibility, though with more circumspection and even modesty than previously, in my current professional role. There is yet no money in it, but the promises of El Dorado are enough, at my age, to pique my declining pecuniary interest.

            ‘Exogamic’ internecine role-conflict – that between authentic levels of self-understanding; the idea that I am one thing or rather another – deeply contributes to the anomic false consciousness. I realized that I was suffering from this while I was a professor, and indeed, upon leaving that vocation behind for good, entered a kind of ‘recovery’ phase, which for me lasted some years. I was a member of the academic tribe, kindred with that medical, legal, and even other less voluminous professions such as architectural. As with any tribe, to mix imageries, one circled the wagons when there was an external threat – from either proprietary students and resentful administrators, for the most part, and once in a while, from suspicious politicians – and when there was not, one instead practiced a kind of status one-upmanship which of late, so I am told, has migrated from comparing one’s c.v.’s to comparing, in Pythonesque fashion, just how miserable one is being of, or descending from, such an such an identity. You don’t say?

            Identifying with historical variables as if they were personal does generate a kind of miserable self-penury. The distance it creates between authentic Dasein and the manner in which one views the world alone is almost fatal to both compassion and a sincerely expressed desire alike. One wills one’s own negation. One says to oneself, ‘Surely it is better to tell the other who is like me that she is my very kindred, my flesh and blood; that we are both, or even all, bred in the very marrow of our kind; language, ethnicity, sex. Only through these deep connections can we make a truer community.’ This outlook presents to modernity the ultimate regression; that we are somehow better off as neolithic gatherings of fictive consanguineals. Not only is this contrary to the evolution of consciousness in general, it is an Edenic fantasy borne on some sort of Nosferatu nostalgia, with the fear of the other as its cardinal theme.

            Now none of this is to say that the confrontation with otherness writ small and into the human heart is not a severe challenge to selfhood. Anyone who has lived will attest to the ethical fact that to come to know another as she is to herself is a rare accomplishment, and one deserving of both the utmost care and compliment alike. But to shrink into the shadows of primitive frameworks with the express purpose of avoiding that confrontation and the ever-present conflict which comes along with it, is to deny one’s very humanity. Worse still, it is to deny the same of that very other, for, in identifying too closely with faux essentials such as ethnic group, language, or sex, is to make one’s fellow human being into a shell of herself. I observed, in a number of field studies of professional organizations, that the great bulk of human interaction in modern institutions was geared into shared experiences of this or that work-life. In leisure activities, familial experiences were added in, but always at the same shallow level. In one sense, this is necessary to keep sociality itself afloat, but in another, that same sociality is the vehicle for inauthenticity, for human unfreedom. All of this is very old hat, of course, which simply tells me that we haven’t been listening for well over a century if not more. Speaking of Augustine, the inventor of narrative subjectivity as well as of the apical confessional and perhaps also the autobiography, are we not also avoiding the tribulation, the trial, of having to actually be a person, and that further cast into our mortality?

            Instead of the authentic, if extreme, overture of Hamlet, who is apparently willing to at least act out his own demise – with the ex post facto caveat that we might be more careful what we wish for – we have taken the ‘to be or not to be’ and placed it into the melodrama of identity politics. Here, the personal is only the political if the former is vanquished. The sole manner of being is to not be a selfhood, to abandon the personal source of experiences which create and develop the self. To become rather a member of some kind of latter-day tribe is the goal. Its desires are kindred to those of all other attempts to avoid the anguish of human finitude, which, ironically, is one of the essential and real experiences that all of us share as a conscious species. The search for extraterrestrials, in its most desperate and unscientific guise, the quest for immortality through prosthetic or ‘artificial’ intelligence, the sub-culture of social regression hoisted into the limelight by neoconservatives, and the tribalism notable perhaps more on the ‘progressive’ side of fashionable politics, both of which are anti-culture, all share this avoidance behavior with those who dread the confrontation with existential anxiety and ethical anguish. Not that either of these need be Pauline or Augustinian respectively, but how they are presented to us in the present rather than historically, is not ultimately altered by our running headlong away from them.

            If we are to have a human future, if we are not to carry on in mass denial of world-altering forces at work around us and through us – tribalism, climate change, warfare, greed – then the first step must be to recover a perspective that respects our own human selfhood. In doing so, we place ourselves back into the world upon which we had been thrown at birth, and we rejoin the movement which traces the existential arc from birth to death, from one happenstance to another. And we do this together, not as a contrivance but as an authenticity; I am at once myself and of a species of consciousness, unique in the universe just as my selfhood is unique within that selfsame species. I am nothing other than this, other than the vehicle for the other to gain her own humanity and lose her like provincial status and outlook. This personal, though not private, risk is the mirror by which we undertake the risk of the future itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Past Lives I have Loved and Lost, part two: the possibility of a transcendental memory.

Back in 1996, Carl Sagan made brief reference to then more rarely encountered cases of ‘past life memory’. Over the past quarter-century more than 2500 such cases have appeared as documented, first, in para-psychology journals and more recently in mainstream ones. Finally, commercial press has taken note of them and counselling psychologists have advised parents of children apparently exhibiting such behaviors to more or less ignore them, as they always seem to pass away with age. Sagan suggested at the time that such cases ‘might be worth a closer look’, though he doubted both their ultimate veracity and verifiability.

Given the epistemic structure of consciousness that Sagan shared with many persons who live in our own historical epoch, it would be difficult to accept at face value the idea that such a serial experience as multiple existences could be historically accurate or biographically real. But such an idea is of course an ancient one, and one not at all foreign to many of the world’s belief systems. Indeed, as we are with many things, it is we, as scientific-minded moderns, who are in the minority to this regard. From reincarnative world systems to social contract cosmologies, the idea of multiple lives is common-place and unworthy of much comment. The vast majority of human experience as an evolutionary consciousness has simply accepted the sense that one lives, dies, and returns to live again as a matter of course.

It is equally transparent that today we tend to view these beliefs as rationalizations against a fundamental mortality and finiteness that we observe in the world-as-it-is. Yet we are being asked, in reference to these other vantage points, if there is yet not a difference between finiteness and finitude, a difference between the structure of perception and the nature of consciousness. Parts of modern philosophy suggest that there is a difference, without reference to the idea of past lives or any other such possibility. The death which is mine own, which cannot be shared, and towards which I run headlong, is a horizon that is neither public nor finite in any objective sense. It cannot be identified simply because the precise timing of our personal deaths cannot be known in advance. In this, our death is a radically ‘subjective’ event. It cannot be said to be an ‘experience’ in any mundane sense of the term. Indeed, it is also commonplace for the philosopher to state that ‘I cannot experience my own death, only that of others’. Furthermore, no matter how many passings to which I have myself been witness, this does not alleviate from me the burden of having to face down my own death, nor does it exempt me from the problem of the Other itself. No matter how many others die, not only must I still myself die but there remains yet more others to remind me that the otherness of the Other itself lives on.

Perhaps this is one of the experiential sources of the idea of past lives. A person dies, perhaps even a loved on, an intimate, but most of the time, these persons are recalled to memory by the living-on of other persons. It is not that the dead are summarily ‘replaced’. Freud, in a poignant letter to Binswanger from 1929, points out that in fact we never make substitutions of this sort, and in not doing so, this is in fact the manner in which we remember the beloved dead. More common than even this is the facticity of resemblance. We often tell ourselves that we know many people, but fewer characters, as individual persons who are different from one another nevertheless exhibit many of the same traits, especially if they hail from a similar cultural background. Although the old ‘culture and personality’ school of mid-20th century anthropological psychology has fallen out of favour, there remains something of this in our casual bigotries towards ‘the others’. As telling as this is, it is also sage to note that we stereotype ourselves for the sake of convenience as well, not wishing to disassemble our own society for fear of worse to come.

And I think that this is the more essential reason that lurks behind our general unwillingness to examine the phenomena of childhood past life memory. To begin to take apart the sense of selfhood that animates our current life journey – I am one thing, in one time and place, in the world as it is known at present etc. – is tantamount to placing the entire notion of existence at a parallax. It raises the kinds of questions that might betray us to bitterness, resentment, and perhaps even ressentiment: Why these few persons and not others? Do only a select and insignificant number of persons get to ‘live again’? If I have one at all, is it possible that my soul is new and not old? What does that mean, if anything? How could old souls reanimate? Is it a random process of regeneration? Is it a fifth elemental force of organismic evolution, so far overlooked? Why do such ‘memories’, if that is what they are, fade or are superseded over time? If such souls are old, would not their accumulated wisdom wish to express itself? Or is anything we do in this life patently predicted by what we actually have already done, outside of our current ken, in past lives that all of us have once lived?

This last question is the one that is truly offensive to any modern person who shares as sacred the idea that we are free beings, and that our will alone is what should determine our destinies. So not only is the nature of existence called into question by these growing numbers of cases but more radically, so is our conception of human freedom, itself a very recent invention and, judging by world politics, also a very fragile one.

Although ‘old souls’ and ‘past lives’ appear to us as at best romantic reveries – and I use both as plot devices in my Kristen-Seraphim saga – there is yet no plausible current-life experiential explanation for the memory content exhibited by these children. It is also difficult to imagine a scientific manner of further investigating them other than what has already been done to confirm the accuracy of the memories in question. Could we imagine travelling back in time and confronting the previous ‘host’ in order to interrogate about a future life of which they would presumably have no knowledge? The entire data set confounds not only experiential life but also rational discourse as we have developed it over the past four centuries. From the point of view of the work I do, such cases serve to underscore the human ability to step back from our lives as lived and examine their serial selfhood as it is in a singular life. For we already know we do not remain the ‘same’ people throughout the life course. This would be an unmitigated disaster, and the prolonging of adolescence into one’s thirties in some regions today is testament to this. Beyond this, we are placed squarely in the imagination which, being also uniquely human, commits us to the wonder of all things both present and perhaps also not quite past.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty five books in ethics, aesthetics, religion and education and more recently a ten volume adventure saga. He was professor of the human sciences for over twenty years.