Friday, August 28, 2015

Giegerich on the Place of the Individual in Modernity

The following is from a 2011 postscript written by Wolfgang Giegerich to his essay The Opposition of 'Individual' and 'Collective'--- Psychology's Basic Fault: Reflections on Today's Magnum Opus of the Soul

The psychological concept of individual entails above all the following four characteristics:
  1. The individual is a self-contained unit. It can be imaged as a circle with a definite center as its core and source. It is a self.
  2. Essential to it is the distinction between the inner and the outer and the sense of and need for privacy…
  3. In its life-long existence it is determined by an unbroken continuity of its identity and an organic development of its personality, often imagined in analogy to the self-unfolding of an acorn into an oak tree or according to the pattern of a Bildungsroman.
  4. It has a sense of autonomy and self-determination, for which the said strong sense of privacy and a relative freedom from external influences and from observation by others are essential.
On all four counts the entire logic of the individual in this sense can be seen to be over in our present modern world. I will give a few casual hints.
    Most telling and truly symptomatic is the rise of statistics since the 19th century. Today the dominant way of thinking about humans is statistical. For statistics, the individual does not count. It disappears in averages and percentages, in abstract numbers. In premodern times one was wont to say, for example, that a village had seven hundred souls. This has become impossible. Opinion polls and statistics are the attestation of the irrevocable sublatedness of the individual, which is, by the way, also the reason why today we have the institution of individual psychotherapy in the first place: as an empirical-practical (psychic) compensation and consolation for the modern truth of the logical, psychological irrelevancy of the individual.
    We now have a de-centered self. It has even been called a “smeared-out self,” Individuals are fundamentally networked. The network comes first, the people second. The network is the true reality, true substance, and individuals are only accidents and elements within it. The Internet, the Web, and cell-phones are the technical objectification of this logic of networkedness. Most telling in this regard  is the development towards cloud computing. Very often one sees people using mobile phones, e.g. in parks or in cities: they are not relentlessly in their present Here, not where their boy is, but both here and with the other person, or rather neither here nor there, at no real locality: in the wireless, immaterial communication. These technical realities are symbolic, that is to say , they reveal to us the inner truth about “the individual” today. …
    Instant messaging, SMS communication are taking the place of the former culture of letter-writing. Classical writing culture, which involved a delay between thinking, writing, sending, and receiving and allowed for reflection and for carefully considered, articulated self-expression of a personality, is disappearing. On account of their briefness and instantaneousness, brief instant messages focus on mere information and invite superficiality.
The idea of having just one spouse for one's whole life and establishing one family is succeeded by the idea and reality that-a person lives together with a partner for a while and then maybe moves on to the next partner for the next period of his or her life, which results in our modern blended or patchwork families. Children thus cannot develop the same sense of identity with respect to their immediate human context that would be supported by a reality of one family generally prevailing in society, one home, one mother and father, in fact of the family, the mother, etc. They experience a dispersion of the very notion of "family" and "mother" and "father." For adults, these social developments likewise tend to undermine the sense of the unity of one organically developing individuality, a fact to which must be added the increasingly frequent experience of discontinuous job careers, both in the sense of shifts between full-time, part-time work, and periods of unemployment, and in the sense of having to be periodically retrained for other jobs. Often people are in general supposed to re-invent themselves periodically. In social networks people often entertain additional fictional identities parallel to their real identity, which also undermines the concept of "the individual" and the sense of unambiguous identity and necessary development of the personality implied by the "acorn theory" of personal nature and by the jungian idea of "individuation." Contingency, openness, and polyvalence rather than the idealistic idea of a fixed "code" of character and calling.
Formerly, education was connected with character formation and a person's becoming cultured, for which "learning by heart" was symptomatic and symbolic. Education focused on the inner man. One was supposed to become learned, personally carry the knowledge and wisdom of one's cultural tradition within oneself, not as a heap of factual bits of information, but as a possession that was integrated into the personality. Memory! A training in penmanship and manners helped form a personal style and allowed one to ex-press one's character. Now, knowledge is mainly stored outside in the Internet and students learn the technical skills of where to look for and how to gather information from the Internet and piece it together into papers and, most important, how to turn their product into good Powerpoint presentations. A real reversal of orientation from inside to outside. In addition, we outsource our mental operations to a large degree to pocket calculators and computers. Weather, climate, and economic forecasts depend on model calculations performed by incredibly powerful computers. We get our bearings through our GPS navigation devices and no longer through our own productive comparison of an inner map with our perception of outer landmarks. It all happens out there, not in the mind. We mechanically follow the instructions given to us by the navigation device.
To this we may add that according to Italo Calvino the very form of the corresponding new type of knowledge or consciousness itself has to be comprehended as a conoscenza pulviscolare, pulverized and dispersed knowledge. This shows again that we are here not only concerned with changes in people's contingent social behavior, but truly with a change in the fundamental objective logic of how reality is constituted for modern man.
What does it mean for the concept of "the individual" and for man's self-conception as "self-determined individual" that in our technologized world we do not, and cannot possibly, understand essential areas of our own actions or decisions as well as the man-made machines that we use? The technology with which we surround ourselves is so complex (and is getting more and more complex) that we cannot manage it any more without the help of computers. Nobody is able to really understand the complexity of capital flow around the world, which is why bankers, analysts, and rating agencies need special computer programs to evaluate the creditworthiness of countries and banks as well as assess the risk of financial products. Without any real insight of their own, they blindly make their evaluations and decisions on the basis of what those computer programs tell them. No single individual is capable of having a full grasp of the source code of computer programs such as Windows. Windows Vista, for example, is said to consist of more than 50 million lines of program code. Nobody could possibly see through such a program in its entirety and all its details. In fact, such programs have not even been programmed by any human "author." In producing such huge programs, programmers rather rely on planning and administration programs for the overview over the structure of the program as a whole, on program libraries which contain specific ready-made routines to be inserted at certain points, and on code generators that automatically produce the code for certain purposes, without the human programmer's knowledge how these code generators in fact solve the particular tasks assigned to them.
Furthermore, what does it mean for our sense of being concrete individuals and our concept of "the individual" that society as a whole moves more and more in the direction of an undermining of "normal" or even "natural" time structures and rhythms in favor of an eternal present of an unlimited access to everything anywhere (I am thinking above all of online and mobile access to information, games, music, and video entertainment, as well as to the possibility of ordering consumer goods)? Can "the individual" survive the loss of a clear sense of the particular limitations of each determinate Here and Now, of the knowledge of being contained by and subject to a relentless order of time and place—as the external borders that hold its self together and keep it "inside"?
Or what does it do to our self-understanding that modern biology has taught us that we are, as it were, a "walking zoo," a biotope, containing ten times as many bacteria in ourselves than human body cells? Even on the level of the bif.dcl.;:cal organism we are not individuals, but a community. Having used the phrase "learnin: heart," we are put in mind of the fact that modern medicine has learned to transplant hearts. And we have to ask what this fact must mean for man's self-understanding and sense of identity. The very heart of man—the symbol of authenticity and innermost truth—as ersatz, a spare part taken from another person! The credibility of the symbolic meaning of heart and inwardness as such is undermined. The progress of medicine is furthermore such that other organs can also be transplanted, tissue. synthesized, children produced through artificial insemination and childbearing delegated; and even our genes can possibly be manipulated. Man can in principle, if not (yet) in practical reality be pieced together from parts taken from different bodies or artificially produced. Furthermore, we know of the possibility of cloning is the symbolic sign of a change on the deep level of the concept of “the individual." The sense of my own body as the reality and substrate of my identity has become questionable.
In his movie Modern Times Charley Chaplin depicted the enslavement of the individual by man-made machines that he has to operate. When the Industrial Revolution was still very much at its beginnings, already Goethe realized that this change entailed a development towards the reduction of the individual to a mere appendage of the technical means and apparatuses invented by modern man and that this development came with an autonomous momentum. Man as individual was not simply the autonomous inventor and master of machines, but conversely became their servant. We today, in the age of medial modernity, become keenly aware of our dependence on computers and the Internet when, for example, computers fail at our bank or we have no Internet connection. People's minds and behaviors are largely shaped by advertizing, trends, and fads and, of course, by our huge stultification machine, television.
Clearly, the time of the individual is over. Michel Foucault's book Les mots et les choses even ends with the vision that Man will disappear like a face drawn into the sand at a seashore, a vision which we may take to refer not to literal man (the human race, people) but to that Particular concept of man that constituted him as individual personality.
Historically speaking, “the individual" in the sense of an inner self and a Bildungsroman-type organic development was also a late, 18th century invention and thus represents only a brief episode, really a fluke, in the history of mankind. At no other time in history and no other part of the world had man ever been defined as individual nality in this specific loaded sense. In most societies throughout history, the social group came first and possessed higher reality.
Strangely enough, Jung as psychologist did not comply with this powerful development towards the obsolescence of the individual. Now one could of course argue that most of the phenomena I just mentioned were still unknown to Jung. At his time, computers, Internet, cell-phones, GPS-enabled devices did not yet exist. The role of the intact family in society was (in principle) still unthreatened. The old educational ideas and the ideal of a person’s life as a continuous organic development of the personality with one more or less steady career and family still prevailed. But this argument does not hold. Even before these most striking developments of the last few decades, it had become obvious enough that the individual was obsolete. During Jung's lifetime, Chaplin made the movie mentioned above and showed that it was possible to see through to the logic of the time. Goethe had had his insight about the individual already about 80 or 100 years before Jung. Likewise long before Jung, Marx had shown that, under the prevailing conditions of modernity, workers in particular necessarily lose control of their lives and destinies. And during his lifetime, Adorno, who was of course a quarter of a century younger than Jung, had made it very clear that under the conditions of late bourgeois society the individual had lost its autonomy, that it was no longer individuals that steered the course of events, but that the power had gone over to the state, to monopolies, big multi-national concerns, and above all, beyond the direct influence of individuals, to hidden anonymous abstract structures, and furthermore that the socialization forces immediately take hold of people's instinctual life so that the idea of an autonomous I (which was still underlying Freud's theory of an I determined by its own internal economy ["where there was Id, there I shall be"]) had no basis.
There were enough obvious signs and theoretical analyses. One could have expected of a depth-psychologist of the rank of Jung, especially of one who when it was a matter of "parapsychological phenomena," was, totally unexpectedly for a psychologist, amenable to the most modern results of physics, that he would also have been sensitive to and psychologically appreciative of the psychological process of the logical obsolescence of "the individual." But in this area Jung only reacted, we could say, counterphobically, a fact to which, above all, his late essay The Undiscovered Self bears witness. He decided against the truth of his age and insisted on "the individual" as the irrenunciable and exclusive locus of soul. It was not that he was totally unaware of the obsolescence of the individual: The great danger he saw was what he called Vermassung, the restructuring of humankind as a mass (GW 10 § 501). But he chose to see this only as a threat. Therefore, a great battle had to be fought by us in defense of the individual against mass society--as if these two formed a neat undialectical opposition: as if the modern “mass” structure was wholly external to the individual and the latter still innocently the pure individual merely confronted with external threat.  
My own position is that psychology should neither load the responsibility and weight of the opus magnum onto the shoulders of the individual, nor throw out the baby, the idea of the individual, with the bathwater in favor of the soul's real opus magnum as it unfolds in the arena of our real historical cultural development in medial modernity with its earthshaking scientific and technological advances. On the one hand, I "can no longer in all fairness load that enormous weight of meaning, responsibility, duty, heaven and hell, onto the shoulders of that frail and fallible human being—so deserving of love, indulgence, understanding, and forgiveness" (Jung, CW 9i § 172, transl. modif.) as which we exist, and I want to keep faith precisely with that individual human being in its—in my own—frailty, fallibility, and neediness. All the new technical and scientific developments do not have to go to our heads. I do not need to personally embrace every new technical possibility and to get enthralled and engulfed by a fascination for it as if it entailed the promise of heaven on earth, nor do I have to personally identify with the logic of modernity and thus forget who I really am and what my real needs as a human being are. But on the other hand, I certainly do want to stay aware of and in contact with the soul's opus magnum and respect and appreciate it. I see the obsolescence, sublatedness, sunkenness of what may be of great importance to me as private individual. This is not only my job as psychologist, but also I feel, task as a human being, a being that is more than its animal nature. But then again, I also keep my distance from it, distinguish and emancipate myself from where the soul is today, from the new logic of modern life, holding my place and staying down to earth as "only that!," living my life only as this private individual that I am, in conscious recognition of my human-all-too-humanness and my personal needs as a human being.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Belief in Reason Is Not Itself Rational

A family member e-mailed me a rebuttal to my last post's review of Roderick Tweedy's The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation. Specifically the e-mail criticized a quote from William Blake, "Nothing is displeasing to God but Unbelief & Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil", instead, arguing that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao committed enormous evil, and that "these were not the acts of reasonable men.  These were the acts of men trying to be creative without regard to other human beings."

Here is my reply:

William Blake’s last book was “Illsutrations to the Book of Job.” In one drawing he depicts God showing Job the creatures Behemoth and Leviathan, and quotes Job 40:15 “Behold now behemoth; He is the chief of the ways of God” and 41:34 “Leviathan is a king over all the children of pride.”

Were the atrocities committed by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao more the result of the individual evil within those men, or of the vast, impersonal “Behemoths and Leviathans” that in our age are growing out of control?
I need to be more clear in my review (of The God of the Left Hemisphere). It is not reason that is the problem. It is rationalization--reason abstracted from its physical context. Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were far from reasonable, but, as I will try to explain, they truly believed themselves to be, and that is precisely the problem.

There’s an amazing TED talk given by Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor, who suffered a stroke that temporarily disabled the left hemisphere of her brain. The book quotes her talk:
“when I experienced the hemorrhage and lost my left hemisphere language center cells that defined my self, those cells could no longer inhibit the cells in my right mind. As a result, I have gained a clear delineation of the two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium” (JBT, p. 133). As we have seen, she describes the “character” of her right brain in very different terms from that of the left-brain “self”: “at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world” (ibid., p. 133). It is interesting that Bolte Taylor speaks of the left-brain self as “inhibiting” this other, primary sense of self. McGilchrist has noted that much of the evolutionary strategy pursued by the left hemisphere has been based on a form of hindering or “handicapping” of right-brain processes: “left hemisphere superiority is based, not on a leap forward by the left hemisphere, but on a ‘deliberate’ handicapping of the right” (M&E, p. 132).”

The book quotes psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, “Only the right-hemisphere can deliver real, three-dimensional and embodied ‘value’ to us, to our lives, and without this sense of value, all the processes run by our logical faculties, however ‘splendid’, will partake of a curious lifelessness and dissociation.”  Cut off from this right-hemisphere value, the left-hemisphere rational programs are left to operate with no values left except those of the ego. The ego becomes the default "value center." The individual may not be at first aware of this, and for a time may fervently believe that they are acting morally. Whereas some may eventually realize their lostness and look outside themselves for answers, admitting such mistakes would be political suicide, so individuals such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao have strong motivations to repress any doubt they have about their moral faultlessness, and continue to preach the party lines.

Blake equates this rationalizing process with the construction of a chapel in place of a garden.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

Back to evil, it’s easy to see the evil in others, but as Plato pointed out, impossible to identify within in our present selves.
I think it’s important for groups not to take Blake’s (or anyone's) words as infallible. There’s a reason that Jesus never wrote anything himself, I think, because he intuitively understood that writing lends itself to being taken out of context, and thus transformed from liberating to oppressive. That is what he meant when he says, “I have come to fulfill the law, not abolish it.” If the law were abolished, new laws would quickly fill in the void. Jesus was calling for a reorientation towards law. A fulfilled law is one that nourishes people's peaceful, joyful, creative faculties, not restricts them. Despite this, churches today make the same error as the pharisees, taking law out of context, and treating it as infallible. It is exactly that left-hemispheric program that takes laws and twists them for egoic pursuits (building cathedrals over gardens) that Jesus identifies and condemns in the Pharisees.

Blake wrote,
“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. [What they call] Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] [What they call] Evil is the active springing from Energy.”

So for Blake, evil is just a “left-brained label” that condemns anything that operates outside of the system of laws that Urizen upholds as reality. For Blake, it’s not God that condemns Evil, but Satan, disguising himself as the Holy Reasoning Spectre. Thus, Blake’s quote, “Satan thinks that Sin is displeasing to God; he ought to know that Nothing is displeasing to God but Unbelief & Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil.”

I agree with you that this is a simplification of the problem. However, I feel that it is a simplification that is true within the specificity of our historical era. Another of my favorite writers, Wolfgang Giegerich writes:
“The good-evil opposition is by no means a Universal, an eternal and inevitable theme for the soul to struggle with. It is relative to a distinct stage in the history of the soul, and it existed in this stage not for its own sake (as an eminent truth), but only for a psychological purpose and as one extremely important and powerful instrument for the further development of consciousness out of and beyond its mythological-ritualistic stage. But this instrument has done its job. The development it was supposed to bring about has already been fully accomplished long ago. There is nothing more for it to do, and the soul is now somewhere else and confronted with truly other tasks.” [In other sections Giegerich explains that general statements such as this are directed to the norms and projects (the major one being profit maximization) that our age establishes. Individual persons are often exceptions to these general norms and projects, so good-evil opposition might still be highly relevant to many on an individual level today.]

Quoting one last passage from the book:
As Tolle observes, judging is one of the most fundamental processes of the egoic rational mind, one of its deepest programs. “Making yourself right and others wrong is one of the principal egoic mind patterns, one of the main forms of unconsciousness” (Tolle, 2005, p. 44). Such judgments strengthen the ego “by giving it a feeling of superiority on which it thrives” (ibid., p. 66). To cease to judge is immediately to liberate the mind, but the processes of judging have become so engrained and entwined within the human brain that this is neither a straightforward nor an easy act. Tolle notes that “if you stop investing it with ‘selfness,’ the mind loses its compulsive quality, which basically is the compulsion to judge, and so to resist what is, which creates conflict, drama, and new pain. In fact, the moment that judgment stops through acceptance of what is, you are free of the mind” (Tolle, 1999, p. 128). The “moment that judgment stops” is exactly what Blake means by “Last Judgment”.
“I do not consider either the Just or the Wicked,” Blake notes, “to be in a Supreme State but to be every one of them States of the Sleep which the Soul may fall into in its Deadly Dreams of Good & Evil”

The point I’ve gotten from my readings is that it is essential to not stop thinking. I am as guilty of this as anyone. At my job grading standardized tests, I found at first I would actually get better statistics when I had not gotten a full night’s sleep, because I would grade in a more mechanical way that the rubric called for. (I eventually adjusted by simply taking longer “thoughts breaks” so I wouldn’t overthink the essays I was reading.) I’ll close with another Giegerich quote:

"[Profit maximization] needs us, needs our heart, our feeling, our imaginative attention and rigorous thinking effort so as to have a chance to become instilled with mind, with feeling, with soul. It must not be left as something that happens totally outside of us and apart from our consciousness. It must, as it were, be reborn through the soul and in the soul." 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review of Roderick Tweedy's The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor, and the Myth of Creation

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
“Satan thinks that Sin is displeasing to God he ought to know that Nothing is displeasing to God but Unbelief & Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil” - William Blake, Descriptions of the Last Judgement

“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for people to see.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs... on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” - Matthew 23:4,5,27

William Blake identifies the target of Jesus’s above comments as Urizen, "the embodiment of conventional reason and law." Tweedy's book updates Blake's message, identifying Urizen with "left-hemisphere dominance" in the jargon of today's neuroscience.

Urizen / left-hemisphere dominance is the polar opposite of neurosis. Urizen is abstract reason taken to the extreme. Instead of channeling energy, Urizen simply negates it, colonizing the human mind and turning humans into the passive followers of Reason’s laws.

Tweedy's hypothesis is that the past 10,000 years are the history of the left-hemisphere's / Urizen's rise to dominance achieved by handicapping the brain's right-hemisphere. In a fascinating passage, Tweedy writes:
If my central thesis is correct, then the rationalistic nature of this present book is itself the product of Urizenic reasoning power. For this whole interpretation is also based on left-brain processes, from its artificial “beginning” and temporal, linear-linguistic sequencing, to its abstract logocentric assertions, and finally, to its ultra-rationalistic conclusion that the “God” of religious texts is, logically speaking, simply the projection into “external” space of human brain functions. (p. 37)
Later, Tweedy quotes Ian McGilchrist, “the innate structures of the left hemisphere are, through technology, being incarnated in the world it has come to dominate.” Mechanical time keeping, introduced in 16th Europe, allowed us to objectify time. Wonderful! A new triumph for communication! But the time is not the now. We have forgotten how to subjectively experience time, forgotten how to simply be in the present moment. The present moment is nothing more than another “slice” of time that we pass through as thoughtlessly as a knife through butter. In this way we have restricted our conscious selves to alternating between reliving our past and scheduling our future, existing only in objectified time.

This rationalistic, Urizenic program represses the subjective pleasure of the present, so that we become addicted to objectified sources of pleasure. Whether it’s the acceptance felt through praise, the pride felt through personal acquisition, the superiority felt through rewards, the excitement felt through indulgence--addiction smothers subjective enjoyment.

This hyperactive inability to enjoy the present is the reason why cycles of addiction are so commonplace. We renounce one addiction only to replace it with another. Mystic Anthony De Mello explains, "When you renounce something, you’re tied to it. The only way to get out of this is to see through it. Don’t renounce it, see through it... If you’re hypnotized into thinking that you won’t be happy without this, that, or the other thing, you’re stuck. If you woke up, you’d simply drop the desire for it."

In an insightful passage from the book, Tweedy explains,
[W]hat lies behind the sheer control is terror: terror at being alive, at being human, at having emotions. The proposals of united nations, a world army, or a new world “Order”, under the banner of uniformity and unification, are logical extensions of this same Urizenic impulse. It cannot succeed, or rather it cannot succeed without massive human sacrifice, because, as Blake states, “One Law for the Lion & Ox” is not freedom and peace, but “Oppression”. (p. 212)
In this light, all of the hard-won, individual freedoms we have in Western societies are wasted if we do use them to create. Urizen can only conceptualize freedom as freedom from external restrictions. Reason should serve Imagination, not crush it. True freedom is rationally channeling imagination to create.

Madness is a crushed imagination's response to Urizen--reason dazzled, as Foucault put it. It is the swing in the other direction, away from the Urizen-dominated world we live in. Rather than assimilating into the world of conventional reason, madness prefers its rational capacities to be dazzled beyond conventions, to experience the infinite possibilities of thought.

Both sides of the mind are necessary to fully experience life. In Blake's words:
"Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy." - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Urizen is every bit as dangerous as a neurosis, but it is everywhere unregulated in our society. While Neurosis is stigmatized, Urizen is often rewarded and thus conditioned into us. We medicate neurosis into sedation or remission, while the Urizenic operate weapons, manage our workplaces, write our laws, and run our economy.

Urizen is immanent--neurosis, transcendent. Beauty, if Nietzsche is to be trusted, is primarily neither; it is the difficult marriage of the transcendent with the immanent. The narrow road is to walk the path between neurosis and conventional reason, so that both "worlds of possibilities" remain open.

Tweedy's book is a wake-up call, encouraging us to rationally channel our imaginations, and thus find the freedom to create beauty.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

"All Work and No Play" and the Philosophy of Feeling Bored

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. - 17th century European proverb

The most politically significant question we face day-to-day is perhaps “How do we spend our surplus leisure time?” that is “the time when waiting to go back to work.”

Zizek covers the concept of “surplus”, but only in regard to commodities. A key property about "surplus" is that it lacks a sense of purpose. In Zizek's example, it is hard to rationally explain what the attraction of coca-cola, as opposed to simply drinking chilled sugar-water, is, but the attraction is undeniable. The cause of this attraction is the "surplus" quality of Coke. The surplus that comes with commodities is important, yes, but surplus leisure time even more so defines our labor-market-driven society. The idea of "surplus time" develops alongside "wage labor." Surplus leisure time does not exist in agricultural societies, because all work was self-directed. Self-sufficient farmers work for themselves--if a task is on their mind, they can always work on it, without any waiting involved. The idea of "surplus" a.k.a. "vacation" time is only possible when workers no longer feel in control over their time management. Like the attraction of Coke, vacation time is similarly undirected. We feel that we have to "enjoy it properly" or that we will have missed out on something essential within our culture. Purposeful, productive use of vacation time holds the risk of having yourself written off as a bore--someone who works all the time and doesn't know how to have fun. We have little control over it, so when surplus time is there, it ought to be "spent" wisely.

Do you feel bored when don’t have any money to spend, and have nothing scheduled to do? You too might be afflicted with what psychologist Erich Fromm, building off of Marx's theory of alienation, refers to as "compensated boredom":
Chronic, compensated boredom is generally not considered pathological [because] most people are bored, and a shared pathology--the “pathology of normalcy”--is not experienced as pathology... One may state that one of the main goals of [humanity] today is “escape from boredom.”
The cause of this condition, according to Fromm is “insufficient inner productivity.” “[Sufferers]”, he explains, “are bored unless they can provide themselves with ever changing, simple stimuli.”

“Surplus leisure time” separates our emotions from self-creativity and expression. As Marx put it:
“The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working, he is not at home.”
Instead, the only cultural experiences left for emotional engagement are our reactions to the creations and expressions of others. Think about how Facebook has dramatically decreased its emphasis on users’ “notes” and “about me” sections, while increasing its emphasis on its “like button” feature. The move is away from user-created content and towards user reaction to (primarily consumerist) cultural products.

Can we break out of this utter dependence on the market values for meaningful emotional engagement?

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

On Privilege, Racism, and Fear

On Jan. 4th, Fox News co-hosts Peter Johnson Jr. and Tucker Carlson bashed Missouri state senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal for daring to mention white privilege in a Twitter post, claiming she is “perpetuating the race war that she announced in November” (Johnson) and that “she’s a race hater. She attacks people based on the color of their skin” (Carlson).

Carlson is displaying a text-book example of the big lie propaganda technique. This technique works so well for him, that he uses it twice. The first, obvious lie is Carlson’s claim that Chappelle-Nadal is attacking anyone. This lie is here only to distract. The second, more subtle lie is in Carlson’s phrase “based on the color of their skin.” If Chappelle-Nadal were literally "attacking people based on the color of their skin", yes that would be hateful. But that is not the case here. Our minds make race-based judgements about a person all the time, whether we intend to or not, simply because race is one of the first things we notice about a person. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, a big lie is encoded in the doublespeak word “blackwhite.” In today’s neoconservative America, the words are “post-racial” and “colorblind.” “Racism” is then defined as any challenge to the idea we live in such a society. (By this definition, every sociology department in America is racist.) The lie here is that assertions that whites enjoy socially-constructed privileges in today’s America are analogous to assertions that blacks are biologically inferiority (and therefore must be kept separate from the rest of society) in pre-Civil Rights Era America. Just think about that for a minute.

White privilege and racism are both very real. Our society conditions us to feel comfortable around white, male decision-makers, and threatened by the image of black men (and to ignore everyone else completely). This is the implicit message of our government, our media, our movies, and especially our economic institutions, where as of August 2013, corporate boards are still 87.7% white and 84.5% male.

We should be aware that the race-based issues in today’s media are about more than the surface issues--effective policing, the science behind humanity’s genetic differences, or the sociological history of racism. Tucker’s comments are part of a fear-based ideology of control.

We are living out an ideological struggle between love and fear. Television, unquestionably the most powerful technology of social control in human history, beams these fear-based images and soundbytes into tens of millions of homes each and every day. This is what scares me the most today--not the black guy walking down the sidewalk--the threat of living in a society where perfectly decent people never learn to trust each other because they are indoctrinated with fear-based ideologies.

Fear is not always bad. Our survival instincts depend on it to assure us of safety. But our media is constantly playing up our fears of each other in order to get higher ratings and manipulate voters’ choices. To fear ghosts--to fear when there is really no threat--is a sad way to live.
Are we to live in an economy of fear, in which we distrust our neighbor and maintain a safe psychological detachment from the outside world?

Racism today operates precisely in how we respond to questions like this. In contrast to the explicitly racist policies of our country’s past, today’s racism is in the margins of our decision-making within socially-complex contexts. Author Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains how what he calls “racism without racists” functions: "Instead of saying that they do not want [minorities] as neighbors, they say things nowadays such as 'I am concerned about crime, property values and schools.’” Racism is not directly explicitly verbalized, but the end result is still the same: our neighborhoods become largely segregated, and stereotypical, race-based associations are reinforced. All other considerations being equal, whites are more likely than blacks to be called back for job interviews, approved for a bank loan, and put on probation instead of being incarcerated for a crime.

“But look at who’s President! Doesn’t the progress we have made deserve recognition, too?” (I can hear the corporate news anchor now.) Perhaps so, but before we give ourselves that collective pat on the back, we should be aware that racism has taken different forms throughout human history.

The idea that worth as a human being is specifically tied to skin color, rather than upbringing, was intentionally developed and perpetuated in order to justify the routine cruelty within the Atlantic slave trade. Pre-slave-trade racism consists of a more generalized fear of the unknown. Racism in this era was not defined in a specific way.  Foreigners, or those who are different, were simply distrusted at face-value. But as civilizations evolved, people began to find this simplistic fear of cultural difference unsatisfactory.

In medieval Europe, the idea of human slavery began to seem at odds with Christian values. Also, during the 17th century, it became common knowledge that other cultures have made beautiful art, scientific advances, advanced architectural procedures, etc. Other cultures became seen as interesting and worthy of respect after all.
At this same time, however, the conquest of extremely-fertile land in the Americas had created an overwhelming demand for slaves to work on the fields. Racism based strictly on skin color solved this ethical dilemma quite nicely for the white power-structure of the time. “Black people are born inferior. Slavery allows their life to contribute to a higher purpose. The enslavement of blacks is the natural order of things.” As a white person, I cannot imagine being subjected to such barbarity, the reminders of which are still all around us to this day.

The exact history and definition of racism is not as important as the fact that racism always plays off of our natural fear of uncertainty and the unknown.

Humans are the most visually-dependent mammal. We take in more visual data than our intentional, decision-making process has time to sift through. Numerous psychological studies have shown again and again that most contemporary Americans make many racial judgments every day without even realizing they are doing so. One famous study showed that Americans, black as well as white, associate the image of a black male with the threat of violence. Another study demonstrated that in the NBA, white referees call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more fouls on white players. Most participants in these
studies are not racist on a personal, individual level. Racism today is broader than that. It is a structural, institutional problem as well.

White privilege and racism against blacks are both quite real in America today. They are not so much about our individual intentional value systems as about the cumulative effect of our fear-based, everyday biases, which are constantly being reinforced by the structural racism all around us. The effects of racism are just as real as ever, and clearly signifies that we as a society need to wake up and stand up against the fear-based biases that the current system conditions into us.

At various times in human history, someone has proposed that an ideology of love can overcome our fear of the other. In Christianity, this is called Agape. For Islam, in the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “You will not enter paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another.” In Judaism, this concept is called Ahava; in Buddhism, metta; and in Hinduism, prema. Authentic love is not just a mental state. It is the daring risk of self to engage the other. British literary theorist Terry Eagleton wonderfully translates the concept of Agape love as "political love.” Politicizing our love is the only way I see to overcome the fear-based ideologies that currently inundate our culture.