Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Murray, the Trickster: Correcting Ernest Becker’s neglect of Carl Jung

October 12, 2017

 

Jordan B. Peterson remarked in the fourth installment of his biblical lecture series that Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, is “seriously flawed, but wrong in useful ways.” Becker, according to Peterson, “missed the point in the way that Freud missed Jung’s point,” and a “major mistake” of Becker’s work was only briefly referring to Carl Jung in the introduction to his book. Peterson quickly digressed and never followed up on his claims about Becker’s work, or what “the point” is, but much can (and should) be inferred from Peterson’s equation: Becker’s theoretical sketch of Heroism and its inescapable ubiquity is an astonishing but incomplete answer to Freud’s psychoanalytic writings on religion; Freud and Becker share the mistake of missing Jung’s point, according to Peterson; Jung’s point is more sophisticated, more all-encompassing, and better accounts for the situation that Becker outlines (in response to Freud); therefore, revisiting and correcting Becker’s and Freud’s mistake will yield a more accurate and more useful account of the human situation.

The most economical way to demonstrate this pattern of inferences from Peterson’s ambiguous thesis is to analyze Don Delillo’s novelization of Becker’s theories in White Noise, a book of death denial in which the character Murray is a clear instantiation of how Jung’s reading of the human situation, though similar in scope to Becker’s, is greater in explanatory power. Murray is better represented by Jung’s “trickster” archetype than Becker’s sketch of “heroism,” and, further, Delillo’s book could be more accurately read by a Jungian framework than a Beckerian reading – all the way down.

Peterson’s accusation that Becker missed Jung’s point can be sourced to the tepid conciliatory gesture at the end of Becker’s introduction, in which he dismisses Jung’s theoretical relevance. Instead of grappling with Jung’s arguments, Becker grounds many of his core arguments in the writings of Otto Rank, whose neglected writings become a sort of causa-sui revival project of Becker’s own. To these “heroic” ends, Becker attributes Jung’s absence to the then culturally prominent status of psychoanalytic literature, but doesn’t resist the temptation to jab (thus revealing a deeper-seated motivation to ignore Jung’s work): “I can’t see that all his tomes on alchemy [my italics] add one bit to the weight of his psychoanalytic insight.” That is, Becker conceived of his own central claims as operating independently of Jung’s more obscure works primarily because of Jung’s willingness to encompass seemingly any metaphysics within his own; Becker’s reading of Jung thus discards the nuance of Jung’s more central claims: the collective unconscious, the archetypes, the symbols of transformation – all of which litter the otherwise vacant cavities of Becker’s massive theory. Here is where Becker “misses the point,” as Peterson would have it: Becker confused Jung’s “needless esotericism” with his more important writings. Becker’s compartmentalization and thus misreading of Jung admits to a faulty first premise by which Becker (incompletely) argues the rest of The Denial of Death.

Even the explicit intertextuality of Don Delillo’s White Noise and Becker’s The Denial of Death is interrupted through a more patient inclusion of Carl Jung’s arguments, yielding a more complete sense of the work that Becker (and Delillo after him) was trying to accomplish. Delillo’s illustration of Becker’s work is most obviously present in White Noise’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, but Delillo’s illustration loses focus when peripheral characters, like Murray, collide with Jack’s heroism. Delillo’s focus on Jack’s heroism by definition excludes the heroic complexity of the novel’s less immediate characters, a subtlety that Becker’s account of heroism similarly omits. Becker stretches the theory of heroism across all swaths of society but Jung goes deeper, detailing and accumulating evidence of archetypal manifestations beyond the generalities of heroism.

Carl Jung’s illumination of the trickster archetype more powerfully explains Murray’s character than Becker’s rendering of heroism. Murray is an embodied counterexample to Becker’s claim that “our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic,” and that Jung’s archetypes – personified representations of instinctual systems – have a greater explanatory power than Becker’s heroism – attitudinal descriptions of terror management. Murray symbolically embodies Jung’s response to an ambiguity at the heart of Becker’s thesis: “If the basic quality of heroism is genuine courage, why are so few people truly courageous?” One might imagine that Murray has read Becker and is investigating this question of courage at different levels of analysis throughout the novel. White Noise’s protagonist, Jack, shores himself with the courage to pursue heroic projects like learning German, while Murray, Jack’s colleague and friend, is written into the novel as an unorthodox, brilliant, and foolish character. Murray’s absurd investigations into Becker’s question of genuine courage are best explained through Jung’s “trickster” archetype, a character that evades direct contact with powerful threats while at the same time more cleverly deals with these powerful threats than the “hero” archetype.

Murray’s presence as the Jungian “trickster” archetype first becomes clear at the Most Photographed Barn in America (Barn, hereafter). Becker’s heroism would interpret the following exchange as a demonstration of neurotic, learned, narcissistic character traits:

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.’ He seemed immensely pleased by this.

Murray’s phenomenological remarks in this scene examine the “aura” that Becker describes with regard to psychological transference. The Barn’s aura is sustained by the masses who pilgrimage to the site, and Murray’s comments to Jack juxtapose their own silent presence to the unthinking, “incessant clicking” of the masses. This juxtaposition sustains Murray’s sense of heroism, and Jack’s own by extension, according to Becker. Jung’s account of this juxtaposition, however, in terms of the “trickster,” clarifies what Becker would call Murray’s heroism as the “therapeutic effect.” The therapeutic effect of Murray’s character, in Jung’s terms, presents the “low intellectual and moral level before the eyes of the more highly developed individual,” namely, Jack, “so that he shall not forget how things looked yesterday.” Murray’s presence reinforces Jack’s heroism, but Murray himself cannot be described in the same terms. Recall Murray’s supposition that “we can’t answer these questions […] we can’t get out of this aura.” Jung would argue that these remarks came straight from the mouth of the trickster: “We like to imagine that something which we do not understand does not help us in any way. But that is not always so.” Here, both Murray and Jung’s trickster archetype presuppose intrinsic worth in (seemingly) impractical knowledge, as well as take pleasure in the impracticability. Seen in this way, the questions Murray says we “can’t answer” are, as Jung’s portrayal of the trickster suggests, “helpful” – a claim that doesn’t traditionally make sense. The immediacy of this parallel demonstrates how Jung’s explanatory power outshines Becker’s with relation to the manifestations of heroism in Delillo’s novel. Heroism doesn’t sufficiently account for Murray’s presence in this scene; or, at least, Jung better details and contextualizes the uncanniness of Murray’s presence as it relates to Jack’s heroism.

Murray’s response to Babette’s uncanny television appearance is, similarly, only partially explained by Becker’s account of heroism. Babette’s television appearance startles every character except for Murray, whose “sneaky” smile and notetaking unhinge Jack’s sense of heroic certainty. In Becker’s terms, Murray calmly reasserts his heroism in this unexpected scene, a response which “covers over” the anxiety that Babette’s appearance has produced. A Beckerian reading of this nature might ignore Murray’s emphasis on “the wrong kind of attentiveness” so present in the characters’ attitudes towards television, and might renegotiate (or undermine) Murray’s palpable ambiguity within the Gladney family dynamic.

Jung’s characterization of this television scene would critique the generality of Becker’s reading of Murray, which allows for but does not predict Murray’s specific responses. Jung’s “trickster” explicates Becker’s vague reading of Murray to the extent that a primary feature of the trickster is “a reversal of the hierarchic order.” Murray argues that society has “reversed the relative significance” of higher and lower order consciousness in passive engagement with television. Murray goes on to say that “misuse” has lead to this reversal, a trend similarly found in Jung’s discussion of the trickster’s origin in which “a higher level of consciousness has covered up a lower one [while] the latter was already in retreat.” Murray thus embodies the revelatory aspect of Jung’s trickster as well, as evidenced in his critique of society’s “misuse.” Seen this way, Jung might correct Becker’s emphasis on the heroic aspects of Murray’s critique in terms of the “gradual civilizing” force of television. Murray, as does the trickster, behaves in the most uncivilized ways in situations when Jack’s heroic narrative fails; Murray is most alive in times when Jack is most flustered. Reading Murray’s character in this way further demystifies Jung’s remark that “the so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster” until the “shadow,” the dark force of the unconscious, arises. That is, Jack, like Becker’s heroic portrait of humanity, has forgotten the importance of recognizing archetypes – perhaps with mortal consequences at stake.

Murray’s encounter with the prostitutes during the Great Airborne Toxic Event (GATE, hereafter) most benefits from a Jungian revision to more obvious Beckerian readings throughout the novel. An unorthodox encounter with a car full of prostitutes undermines Jack’s relief at Murray’s familiar presence during the alienation of GATE. Jack, surprised, asks Murray what he’s solicited these prostitutes to do for “twenty-five dollars,” to which Murray’s deadpan answer shocks Jack into silence: “The Heimlich maneuver.” Murray’s answer subverts the casual reader’s expectations of lust, sexual fulfillment, and economic predation associated with prostitution. Becker might describe Murray’s justification to Jack that he will be satisfied “as long as she collapses helplessly backward into my life-saving embrace,” in terms of a way to reinforce his sense of heroism. Murray externalizes his anxieties in the form of what might otherwise be read as a “love object.” More accurately, however, the trickster’s “divine-animal nature” emerges in this scene. That is, two fundamental identifying aspects of the trickster archetype are “extraordinary clumsiness” and a “considerable eagerness to learn.” In this scene, Murray’s “extraordinary clumsiness” arises in his catechetical diction with regards to prostitution (e.g., “representative” and “fellow” clearly refer to a pimp), and Murray’s “considerable eagerness to learn” about the Heimlich maneuver serves to confuse Jack as to Murray’s “divine-animal nature.”

Becker might object that he accounts for Jung’s distinction when he writes that man’s “paradoxical nature” arises from “the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic.” In other words, Jung and Becker may eventually agree about Murray. But Jung’s distinction is more subtle, in that the trickster is a “primitive ‘cosmic’ being,” something prior to the symbolic move towards the heroic on which Becker’s book focuses. In Jung’s revised account, then, Murray, the trickster, never quite makes the Beckerian move into the heroic. Murray’s role as the trickster in White Noise embodies more primitive elements of Jack’s character.

In contrast to the archetypes, Becker has much to say, but Jung says it better and more thoroughly – especially in the task of analyzing Murray’s character. One might suggest the ambitious project of nesting the totality of Becker’s heroism into Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious; for the trickster archetype is hardly all Jung has to offer in this theoretical domain. Jack Gladney, for instance, might benefit from a cross-examination of Becker’s heroism and Jung’s hero archetype. Babette, as well, might gain symbolic depth through a deeper integration of Jung’s writings on the mother archetype into her character. And so on. Delillo’s White Noise might not exist if not for Becker’s Denial of Death, but it might come back to life through a Jungian revival.

These brief examples of Murray’s better-suited role as the trickster archetype rather than a manifestation of heroism return to a higher-order theoretical concern: Does Ernest Becker’s theory of heroism warrant a full-scale Jungian revision? After all, Peterson’s adamant accusation that Becker “missed the point” still remains. In fairness, Becker’s avoidance of Jung’s more esoteric, amorphous, relativistic metaphysical investigations (on alchemy, on religion, etc.) wisely focuses the scope of Denial of Death’s arguments. Murray’s role as the trickster, however, demonstrates the imperfections of Becker’s oversights as they apply to individual cases and idiosyncratic characters – whether Becker intended for this or not. Parsing this relationship requires a patient negotiation of neglected Jungian nuance into the increasingly anachronistic isomorphism of Becker, a task which might be taken up by Jordan B. Peterson if he ever gets back to his point.

 

Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. Free Press Paperbacks, 1973. Print.

Delillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton University Press, 1969. Print.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Adam and Eve: Self-Consciousness, Evil, and Death.” YouTube, 19 June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ifi5KkXig3s

 

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Dada, Nietzsche, and the Art of Madness:

November 4, 2016

 

dadaThe Dada movement–a counter-revolutionary recalcitrance to the cultural enshrinement of art, politics, and reason–has been described as “anti-art.” Despite Dadaism’s antagonism towards art, and such post-Enlightenment ideals listed above, many Dadaists and, consequently, much Dadaist art, rebrands the robust and philosophically respected tradition of Nietzschean thought. Their art, in other words, often pays homage to the enduring literary works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

One must not confuse the Dadaists’ ardent interest with the Nietzsche of the Futurists, nor of the Expressionists, but instead, of “the Nietzsche who questioned everything, who found every idol, every truth to be hollow.” The Dadaists are often credited with transgressing the frontiers of the avant-garde, but one can conclude a more academic vision of the Dada movement, that is, as an explosion of Nietzschean thought–manifested through art–at a pertinent and poignant epoch in human history.

Part I: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

“All becoming conscious is bound up with great and radical perversion, falsification, superficialization, and generalization.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Most fundamental to the Nietzschean influence on the Dadaist movement is what Rudolf Kuenzli calls, Nietzsche’s “radical critique of all cultural values and truths. ” Nietzschean thought is very critical of the “will to truth” because of the intrinsic errors accompanying our normative value judgments regarding existence itself.  The same can be said of the Dadaist attitude toward truth, for asserting that humans don’t accurately understand the world, or that it could be improved, is an act of negation of our own lives. Our will-to-truth, according to Nietzsche, is in bad taste because it vainly seeks something “better,” a state which in actuality does not exist and, thus, makes us miserable. The Dadaists embrace Nietzschean life-affirmation instead, in which life–and, in this case, art–is invited to express itself in its ugliest, otherwise repugnant, forms. In the writings of Andre Breton, for instance, he claims the effect of Dadaist thought serves to “keep us in a state of perfect readiness, from which we now head clear-mindedly toward that which beckons us.” In other words, Dadaism frees one from preoccupation with the culturally invented “truths” of science, reason, and art. These truths are not “clear-minded,” rather they shroud that which is, for Nietzsche and the Dadaists, clear: the naked fact of reality, undisguised. The Dadaists’ skepticism of truth-seeking is predicated on society’s precarious assumption that an objective, epistemological, metaphysical, or moral truth exists; or, that we could obtain some kind of answers from such truth. Nihilistic towards truth, the Dadaists emphatically reject this proposition, chanting, “Nothing, Nothing, Nothing!” These attitudes of Dadaism are, in a self-aware manner, practically plagiaristic of Nietzschean thought.

The Dadaists’ critical (perhaps acritical) attitude towards society’s “will to truth” is revealed in Hugo Ball’s charge that “life asserts itself in contradictions.” This crucial tenet of Dadaist thought is an embrace of what Nietzsche describes as a “Dionysian” worldview, that is, accepting things in totalities. Ball’s conception of the Dadaist is of one who “no longer believes in the comprehension of things from one point of departure, but is nevertheless convinced of the union of all things, of totality, to such an extent that he suffers from dissonances to the point of self dissolution.” The Dionysian reality of the Dadaists resisted the world of “Apollonian” linearity and distinctions, no longer trusting in the straightforwardness of the world. The Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” for instance, is a non-linear rejection of cultural values, expectations, and especially what is thought to be “reasonable” to expect in poetry: clarity, insight, poignance, diction, etc.

Though never explicitly described as a dichotomous blend of the Apollonian and Dionysian worldview, as explored by Nietzsche, one can read Dadaism as parroting The Birth of Tragedy. In the book, Nietzsche writes of Greek tragedy, anticipating the Dada movement, as a “Dionysian chorus which discharges itself over and over again in an Apolline world of images. ” It’s as if the Dadaists stripped this description of Greek tragedy from Nietzsche’s florid prose as their modus operandi, and became living Dionysians. Nietzsche’s description, in other words, anticipates Ball’s own mantra that “life asserts itself in contradictions,” implying a Dionysian tendency for reality to sometimes assert itself all at once (yes-no), against the Apollonian wish for distinction, logical agreement, and linearity. Nietzsche’s “Dionysian chorus” can be understood as the “contradictions” that Ball mentions; while the “Apolline world of images” is the rational, post-Enlightenment ideology that had gifted Europeans with, for instance, World War I.

Nietzsche’s echo, priming the artistic scene for what would later be described as the  “madness” of Dadaism, can be heard specifically in his discussion of tragedy:

“[The] primal ground of tragedy radiates, in a succession of discharges, that vision of drama which is entirely a dream-appearance, and thus epic in nature; on the other hand, as the objectification of a Dionysiac state, the vision represents not Apolline release and redemption in semblance, but rather the breaking-asunder of the individual and its becoming one with the primal being itself.” 

The precision of language here, from which Ball borrows, is crucial. Ball repeatedly uses the words “primal” and “primitive,” for instance, to describe the state of mind to which Dadaism returns the artist. “The direct and the primitive,” Ball writes, “appear to [the Dadaist], in the midst of this huge anti-nature, as being the supernatural itself”; this is the language of Nietzsche, written with the pen of Ball. As the Dadaist “suffers from dissonances to the point of self-dissolution,” so too does Nietzsche’s objectification of the Dionysian state manifest itself as a “[breaking]-asunder of the individual” and “becoming one” with all. Both Nietzsche and the Dadaists take up life in its totality, incorporating the uncanny, dissolving the boundaries between self and other, which then set the stage for a truly unique art (of anti-art) that would ricochet through the world.

By channelling the Dionysian worldview as an artistic starting point to reject the modern Apollonian tradition of society generally, and art specifically, the Dadaists effectively warred against what Ball describes as the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time.” Not only has the “world of systems” been torn asunder, for the Dadaists; the “bargain sale of godless philosophies” (nearly an explicit reference to Nietzsche’s “God is Dead”) has led to the travesty that was the first World War. The Dadaist movement responds–one surmises–to the slaughter of millions, in not-so-frank terms: If this is the product of rationality, science, and reason, we want no part of it! Or, in the Nietzschean vernacular: If this is the product of an Apollonian approach to reality, we will take up the Dionysian cause! Dadaism and Nietzschean thought both wage war on, and in defense of, themselves. Freud’s thanatos lurks in the background of Dadaism, that is, a death instinct. The Dadaists, and Nietzsche, understood that they must lay waste to traditional values for new ones to arise in their place.

Part II: “Destroy, Rebuild, Until God Shows”

“Only those who perpetually destroy what is behind them to rebuild themselves for the future can arrive at the new and the true.”
– Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl

With Nietzsche in mind, one can begin to appreciate the permeation of what appears to be “madness” in the disorienting Dada movement. The Dadaist wields what one might call “madness” as a politically provocative, counter-intuitive, revolutionary catalyst for creativity. Many of the original Dadaists directly confronted this accusation of “madness,” and most of them embraced the veneer of insanity as a shroud, or one might say a badge of honor, for the more serious precepts of their movement, namely the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Dada initially appeared to be nearing the brink of institutionalization (i.e. the extreme irreverence towards the sacred cows of their time), but was soon revealed to be a very calculated, channeled madness, properly (but playfully!) explored on the frontiers of the avant-garde. Through the exploration of Nietzschean thought, the works of the Dadaist movement become less strange to art critics, and can be better understood as an existentialist project, practicing a temporary suspension of the rational. In suspending rationality, one becomes unfettered by the chains of reason, logic, and “common sense,” which would otherwise hinder one’s conception of what constituted art. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” for instance, would not have seemed so shocking and transgressive had there not been artistic rules in place to be broken.

The organization of the modern world was, for both Nietzsche and the Dadaists, a “misapplication of reason.” The madness of Dada, then, must in fact be a proper application of reason. A proper application of reason presupposes a willpower–or a “will to power,” in the Nietzschean vernacular–behind the reasonable or deliberative act. This worship of rational faculties is pernicious when solely relied upon; the human animal, at its most reasonable, still wages war and destruction on life forms everywhere. The world’s attitude towards reason (a disregard for what was perceived to be “non-human” or “sub-human” life) was so common during the early twentieth century, that the charge of “madness” levied against the Dada movement was rendered laughably insipid. Francis Picabia, for instance, must have been fed-up with the familiar pejorative of “madness” when he wrote, “One thing opposes this assertion [that we are mad]: lunacy necessitates the obstruction or at least the alleviation of the will, and we have willpower.” Again, the degree to which Picabia’s language reflects that of Nietzsche is stunning. If the Dadaists had “willpower,” or a “will to power,” what was it aimed at? Perhaps the Dadaists wielded Nietzsche to unlearn sanity, so as to break free of the values of what Tzara described as the “vulgar herd.” One might respond in kind that at the heart of both Dadaism and Nietzschean thought is a critique of the “herd mentality,” the idea that consciousness is mediated by the degree of its usefulness insofar that it benefits society as a whole. We are, in other words, “slaves” to our own collective consciousness.

The Dadaists agree with the Nietzschean insight that thought is controlled by the boundaries of signs and symbols that are developed and commonly imposed on, and by, the society in which one finds oneself. For instance, Tristan Tzara writes, “My words are not mine. My words are everybody else’s words: I mix them very nicely.” Understanding “words” as “symbols,” Nietzsche claims that grammar itself is the “metaphysics of the people,” which points again to the fact that we tend to only recognize things through the words we have been exposed to and the symbols–Tzara’s “commodities of conversation”–through which we have been taught to understand experience. 

The peculiarity of Dadaism is its outright repudiation of expectation, that is, the Dadaists reject the accustomed nature by which we engage language, as it has lulled us into lazy thinking. We can’t, in other words, help but see language as language. Dadaism exploits this linguistic expectation (and expectation in general), using fragments of language to disorient us from meaning; in sum, we temporarily escape the metaphysics of the herd. Our expectation for language to make sense is undermined with embarrasing ease, as demonstrated in Hugo Ball’s “sound poems.” Dadaism’s linguistic manipulations reveal both the fragility of language and its tenuous grasp on truth. In rejecting the “herd’s” rules of language, Nietzsche’s “metaphysics of the people,” the Dadaists freed their artistic antics from the shackles of sanity. Understood in this way, Andre Breton’s charge against Tzara’s Dadaism, as that which “today no longer corresponds to any reality,” becomes, ironically, all the more reasonable. 

Of course, it would be absurd to suppose, as Breton ostensibly did, that Tzara’s Dadaism lacked direct correspondence with reality as such, through its purported madness. A cynical observation of that nature clashes with Breton’s own notion that Dadaism was “where one idea is equal to any other idea, where stupidity encompasses a certain amount of intelligence, and where emotion takes pleasure in being denied,” spelling out Dadaism’s wink-and-nod “madness.” Dadaism was, in truth, a series of conceptual experiments, in terms of its seeming stupidity or lunacy. These mental orchestrations arose from the playfulness of one of Picabia’s aphorisms, “Our head is round to allow thoughts to change direction.” One might imagine a thought changing directions as a precondition for logical contradictions, in other words, negating itself by making a conceptual U-turn, so-to-speak. Returning to Ball’s “contradictions,” one might even imagine thoughts changing multiple directions at the same time. Thus one begins to unravel the deliberative playfulness, naivety, and craziness which manifests itself as the “impotent, desperate laugh” of the Dadaists in the face of a shattered culture, of so much destruction and tragedy in the world. One can’t help but marvel at the Dadaists’ playful reaction to such a bleak situation.

The negative, counter-culture machinations of Dadaism have been elucidated at length, here, notably through Nietzsche’s paternal relationship to the Dadaists. But, given their heavily Nietzschean framework, I would be amiss to neglect the affirmative, culture-creating activity of Dadaism. “It takes discipline to be modern,” observes a critic of the Dadaist movement. One can see, through the conceptual rigor of Dadaism’s flagrant Nietzscheanism, that it takes discipline to be a Dadaist. As Rasula notes, “Dada negation was a force, not simply a dispirited wail,” nor simply an adolescent reading of Nietzsche. The Dadaists were destroying to create, boasting ignorance as a means for understanding, and searching through the eyes of madness to disconceal the principles of sanity.

Modern reactions to Dadaism are softened by the cushion of history. What was once shocking, new, and unusual, now has been integrated into our culture such that some aspects of Dadaism are practically pedestrian (i.e. photomontage). “[Ubiquitous] on the Internet,” Rasula writes, “the proprietary relationship to images is presumably swept away because of their universal accessibility.” During the time of the Dadaists, what was considered to be “art” and “high culture” was not, as Rasula writes, “universally [accessible].” Dadaist works, in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) world, have lost much of their “shocking” quality that once led art critics so readily to the charge of madness. Ensconced by history, the emancipation of the Dadaists no longer strikes onlookers as “radical” (and thus “mad”) as it once did. In some ways, though, Dadaism still retains its “madness” (i.e. sound poetry).

Members of the “De Stijl” movement, a movement designed to rebuild art from the ashes of Dada’s destruction, capitalized on Dadaism’s historical donation, demanding “the annulment of any distinction between life and art.” Art, by such a conception, is everything that breathes, that experiences, that is experienced, and has Being. The emulsification of life and art, then, elucidates critics of Dadaism as to the uncanny characteristics which have often manifested themselves as “madness.” That is, the Dadaists’ fixation on states of madness was foregrounded in a reaction to the trauma of World War I; for the Dadaists, and the members of De Stijl, there was no distinction between art and life, nor sanity and madness. This seemingly obvious insight regarding World War I’s effect on Dadaism becomes less obvious when one recalls that many Dadaists actively avoided conscription into the war, notably, through “feigning madness.” “Consequently,” writes Elizabeth Benjamin, “it might be suggested that [the Dadaists] came to identify with this mental state, where it seemed to them that it was the world itself that had gone mad.”

In quintessential Dadaist “yes-no” fashion, acting mad to avoid conscription was a strategic performance which kept alive (and thus sane) the Dadaists who would avoid the true madness of combat at any cost: “in this respect, madness equals sanity.” The emancipation of the Dadaists who grew accustomed to their “feigned madness” to avoid conscription must have no doubt been addicting. Thus, one can surmise how “feigned madness” could have been conceptually integrated into Dadaism as a way to emancipate art itself from the austere, quasi-despotic monopoly of post-Enlightenment, rationalistic and capitalistic ideals. If sanity was learnable, so was madness.

The Dadaist approach to artistic creation–the act of destroying in order to create–became itself a metaphor for life, thus fulfilling the aim of the De Stijl movement: to render art and life indistinguishable. The division between sanity and madness, blurred through the kaleidoscopic lens of Dadaism, affords the “madness” of Dadaism both historical merit and artistic distinction. At the heart of Dadaism, one sees the refrains of how life (art) consumes in order to produce, it kills (destroys) in order to live (create). At its essence, Dadaism was a mirror which all-too-accurately reflects the all-too-human state of modernity. Unfortunately, the state of modernity, for Dadaism, was that of true madness, a neurotic, quasi-pathological madness of feigned normalcy and “sanity,” a state of mind which denied the inevitable destructive participation accompanying one’s being in the world. Thus, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ remarks on Dadaism come into clearer focus: “[Dadaism] freed the individual from the mind itself.”

One must not be surprised at how those who viewed art conservatively, when seeing their reflection in the proverbial mirror of Dadaism, would recoil at their own bad faith, quickly smashing the mirror into pieces, denouncing Dadaism as “mad.” The conservative contemporaries of the Dadaists who did not revel in irreverence would think they had done away with Dadaism by writing it off as insane (which it certainly wasn’t) and ridiculous (which is undoubtedly was), thereby smashing the mirror. To conclude the conservatives won and the presumed sanity in art resumed, however, would be mistaken, as we’ve seen. For, even in pieces, the fragmentations of Dadaism, like a mirror, still had (and has!) the capacity to veritably reflect life itself, sanity itself, better than any deliberative, rational thought would be able, or willing, to produce.

Garnering Insight from the Garden: Environmental Food Justice

May 6, 2016

Most of my time gardening has been spent with ornamentals, but this year I decided to finally start a garden of proper food-growing plants. Food growth appears deceptively simple: buy a tomato plant, dig a hole, water it in, harvest. But, of course, that mental image is far from the truth. Mid-April, as I’m currently learning, brings the night moths, the snails, the aphids, the leaf borers. If you want your tomatoes to stay vegetarian, some kind of insecticide is to be called upon. Thus, in a flustered attempt to debug my tomato plants, I learned a lot about the relationship between food-bearing plants and the environment which they are embedded in. I also realized how ill-equipped Florida’s soil is for the naive gardener. But the more I learned, the more I realized that I, and others like me, didn’t know about the broader implications regarding our food choices and their impact on the macro-environment.

Everything we do as humans is implicated in the broader context of the planet. We build, we create, we destroy. This is true of food as it is of any human endeavor. But food is a unique issue, in terms of our ability to ignore it as something potentially problematic and pernicious on the globe itself. With fewer than 2% of our population currently employed in the agricultural industry, and most of them cordoned off in large scale operations far from any urban eye, it’s no wonder how oblivious most of us can be. For the vast majority of the American population don’t see the topsoil runoff, we don’t see the aquifers being polluted by pesticides, we don’t have to endure negative health consequences (neurophysiological and respiratory damage, predominantly) from being downwind of a slaughterhouse. The simple reality is that we have our backs turned on the very mechanism which brings food to our fridge.

An Agricultural Actuality

The issue of food justice and its concern with environmental justice are not particularly sexy, certainly not “BREAKING NEWS” in CNN’s liberal use of the term, but these issues are in fact worth caring about and, whether we realize it or not, will become defining issues of the future (my) generation. The United Nations, for instance, projects a world population of roughly 9.8 billion by 2050–that’s a rather large bump from our current 7 billion: roughly 3 billion more mouths to feed. Compile this reality with the State of the World’s observation in 2001 that between 1950 and 1990, “world grain yield per hectare rose 2.1 percent a year,” but “between 1990 and 2000, however, the annual gain was only 1.2 percent.” Effectively, this figure suggests an unpalatable truth: crop yield is decreasing simultaneously with an increasing at the rate of population rise, meaning that some people are going to go hungry. Many already are going hungry.

This trend of mutually reinforcing factors contributing to hunger are only worsened when we zoom out and ask how we can meet the needs of the projected future population. Not only are we running out of arable land, but we are running out of water. Our agricultural system uses approximately 50 billion gallons of water per day, 60% of which is directly draining from our groundwater aquifers. These figures exclude the other uses (often misuses) of water in other areas of our society (i.e. drinking, cooking, showering, watering your lawn, etc.). The scary reality of groundwater depletion is heightened by the reality of a growing global population, which will only metastasize through the havoc of climate change. And, of course, we could always desalinate water, or cut down hectares of forest to grow food, but the common environmentalist is already disquieted by such prospects. If there is a more agreeable alternative to our unsustainable food system, then we should seek out that path.

Climate Cataclysm

Pivoting to the broader impacts on the food system by climate change, the scientific consensus currently projects hundred of millions of people being forcibly relocated due to unlivable conditions. This is relevant to the question of food justice precisely because so many agricultural hubs in the tropics are projected to be forcibly relocated within the coming century. My home state of Florida is one such locale of climate change’s ability to turn a billionaire into a refugee, almost overnight. Florida, funnily enough, is an agricultural hotbed: 62% of the United States’ grapefruits are grown here, for a start. If my state sinks due to rising sea levels, as predicted, then we’ve got a lot more than grapefruits to worry about. For instance, as sea levels rise, they eventually overflow into our freshwater reserves–largely underground–thereby contaminating wells and poisoning farmlands (literally salting the earth). Not only will people have to relocate, but we will have to relocate our resources anew. And this is a double-effect: people lose their financial security at the same time that they lose their croplands. Climate change, as predicted, robs us of our homes, of large swaths of farmland, of our water, and thus, our very lives.

Beyond the isolated concerns regarding Florida, it’s important to understand how environmental refugees are spawned by more than sea level rise alone, and how this exacerbates the strain on our already unsustainable food system. Frederik A Kaufman, in his book, Foundations of Environmental Philosophy, writes of environmental refugees as “people who can no longer live in their traditional homelands because of environmental degradation.” This broad definition encompasses those victims of repeated/prolonged droughts, storms, floods, and rising oceans. So, in other words, any climatic region is vulnerable to climate impacts. Norman Myers, staunch defender of environmental justice, writes of how climate change will affect areas like southern Canada, southern Europe, mid-western United States, Australia, etc. which are all crucial regions to food production. Climate change threatens the food system from every front, forcing farmers off their lands and eliminating the supply chain for over 100 of the words developing countries. We are very likely facing famine on a scale we have never seen, dwarfing that of Mao’s China. A prolonged drought in these areas would cause an estimated 50 to 400 million people to die due to lack of food access; this estimate excludes impaired growth, cognitive function, physical ability, and all the residual effects on those who survive the famine, but only just so. And, in terms of worldly concerns, the amount of lost revenue and, thus, increased unemployment will be staggering. In this grim future, starvation would almost become normal.

* * *

Solving mass starvation, climate change, and a world population on the trajectory to double, is no easy task. From the literature I have steeped myself in, I don’t think any one person could say with a straight face that they have a solution. But we are bound by duty to feed our fellow neighbors, to protect our planet, to harbor the climate refugees when they come, to restructure society in a sustainable way, to curb population growth, etc. Though I am of the belief that there is no panacea for this problem, I will attempt to sell you on what I perceive to be the closest things to it. And making those changes, in terms of practicality of reinventing our food system, requires an antecedent ideological restructuring of our food values (aesthetically, ethically, and environmentally).

Japan: A Lesson in Innovation

Traditional agriculture relies on expansive farmland which to some extent restructures the physical landscape such that it is optimal for maximum yield. Obviously, given the interconnectedness of environmental concerns and concerns of food justice, we have to change the way we are growing food. And, as we’ve seen, this comes at all levels: water management, topsoil conservation, biochemical sensitivity, etc. Japan has taken up this challenge mightily, but it has yet to expand its scope beyond a few prototypical factories. Their idea is to grow more food in less amounts of space by building vertically: Japanese scientists repurposed an old Sony factory, beginning in 2004, and progressively onward, which has become arguably one of the most agriculturally efficient food production facilities in the world.

This Japanese operation consists of a mere 25,000 square feet, yet yields over 10,000 heads of lettuce per day. This vertical interpretation of farming is over one hundred times more efficient, inch for inch, than traditional agricultural methods (horizontal and outdoors). Not to mention, they have fewer insect problems, less fungal issues, a decrease in power usage by 40%, a decrease in food waste by 80%, and a decrease in water usage by an astounding 99%.

An unexpected benefit to this new form of vertical farming is disease resistance: if one greenhouse breaks out with a plague (akin to the great potato famine, only one crop yield suffers). They are physically isolated in the way that open-air, outdoor farming is not.

Following the disastrous earthquakes and tsunamis to wreck Japan over the last few decades, notably the recent 2011 travesty, scientist Shingeharu Shimimura determined this new method of vertical farming to be the future. Much cropland in Japan was lost in the recent tsunami event, and this seemed like an obvious solution. The factory, repurposed, not only reclaimed old urban space, but offered somewhat of a food sovereignty to the locals of Japan. Rows of LED lighting line the vertical racks of lettuce and, in conjunction with temperature and humidity controls, artificial days and nights, water retention and soil preservation, this previously abandoned space has transformed into one of the most promising beacons of the future.

Prototypes of this vertical farming have expanded to Russia, Hong Kong, Mongolia, and beyond. If the United States, one of the most prolific food wasters, inefficient agriculturalists, and most neglecting environmentalists in the world, adopted this program, there are untold benefits to such an endeavor.

Importing Agricultural Ideology

If we accept this new Japanese method of vertical farming as a potential solution to the multifaceted problems we’ve so grimly outlined above, then we must take this application and integration into American society very seriously. The first question arising is a logistical one: Where would we build these factories? An obvious answer would be to repurpose our own buildings in America, akin to the Sony factory in Japan. It is no secret that America is not only home to the free and the brave, but the deforested and abandoned strip mall. These large spaces, impractical for retail restructuring, serve as ideal floor plans for a similar grow-op in nearly every urban city in America. As these buildings are climate controlled to an almost unrealistic degree, they can be located anywhere: north, south, east, and west.

Though Shimimura’s prototype factory has not experimented with a gamut of popular crops, one could easily envision a crop like Quinoa–which requires high elevation to maintain its consistency of firmness, taste, nutrients, and yield–being grown through controlled air conditions. One could, in theory, harvest winter crops like kale in the dead heat of a Floridian summer. Not only does is this farming more efficient, it is expandable, it has diverse purposes, and it serves to reinvigorate American jobs directly in their native communities. Thus, in terms of food justice, vertical farming in urban spaces attacks all facets of modern food justice: food deserts, grocery gaps, food insovereignty, gender and racial inequity, socio-economic barriers, environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and the list goes on.

Questions? Comments? Concerns?

As rosy as the picture I have painted sounds, we have to take into account some immediate concerns, worries, and potential objections to the proposal I have just outlined. The first and most obvious concern is the question of startup cost: who is going to pay to renovate these abandoned properties and repurpose them with expensive equipment, American wages, distribution costs, etc. There is, in other words, a large up-front cost which may not be met: the demand might just not be there on the consumer end. While this is indeed a viable concern, it is a very narrow and short sighted approach to the problem. At best, this concern is cynical, because it assumes a parsimonious society, placing primacy on the pecuniary and not the longevity of the planet. This has some merit, but I would simply reply to the cynic here by pointing out how, as with solar power, the immediate costs are practically paid off overnight: lower energy requirements, more efficiency of crop yield, lower water usage, less square footage required, less chemical to protect crops, etc. are all immediate gains by method alone. If we take Shimimura’s 100% increased efficiency at its word, then one would, in theory, make 100% more profits per harvest. In all but the immediate, this vertical farming approach pays for itself before the first investment check has been cashed.

Another objection to my proposal is what I’ve alluded to somewhat already: the concern regarding crop biodiversity. If we take food justice concerns to heart, including culturally significant foods as worthy of concern, then it is important that we don’t look to vertical farming as a panacea. For watermelons, for example, require an abundance of horizontal space to produce sizable fruits. How could this be alleviated by vertical farming? In a sense, this objection has some veracity; but even on its worst day, vertical farming still outperforms horizontal farming in aggregate. A watermelon-producing vertical farm would, in every case, produce more than a horizontal one, but it may not be the touted “100%” more efficiency of lettuce. But what about fruit trees? In some cases, fruit trees can peak out at fifty feet tall; wouldn’t this eliminate the benefits of going vertical? Yes and no, for not many fruit trees peak at such height, and none of them–to my knowledge–cannot produce fruit at a more petite size. So, in a sense, this objection has merit, but only if we are being pedantic about the specific percentage of increased efficiency of this farming method. In all cases, we are being wiser–both economically and environmentally–to move indoors, to move vertical.

Eating Animals

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, he puts to bed the question concerning the relationship between one’s diet and one’s environmental impact: “Omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.” His analysis of environmentalism draws on research from the University of Chicago, which reveals how our food choices contribute at least as much to climate change as do our transportative choices. And, according to his research, drawing on Pew and the United Nations, farmed animals contribute more globally to climate change than transport. He cites 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions–“around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector”–as due to eating animals at the factory farming, industrial scale. Somehow, in our political discourse, all we hear about regarding climate change is fossil fuels. Yet, according to the UN, factory farming is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems” especially “land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.” As Safran Foer so damningly puts it, “someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call [oneself] an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.”

The case presented by Safran Foer is exactly why I was so hesitant, at the top of this essay, to call vertical farming a “solution.” Yes, it solves the problems of plant raising. But we cannot realistically expect to eliminate meat eating if we are to properly feed the projected 9.8 billion population by 2050. We need a stable protein source, we need the extremely calorie-dense meats to adequately serve the nutritional needs of the many–right?

A Creepy Crawly Solution

Most people find the thought of insects disgusting. We pay people hundreds of dollars a year to eliminate them from our homes, from our yards, from our lives, and yes, from our food. But, as evidenced across many cultures, insects are extremely nutrient dense foods. Unlike livestock, they are ubiquitous, affordable, and rapidly procreating. Compare 100 grams of insect protein with that of chicken, pork or beef: the protein content is much the same, but crickets (for instance) report higher levels of essential vitamins and minerals (i.e. calcium, zinc, and iron), gram for gram, than that of traditional livestock. Not only is this a more nutrient-dense solution to the question of increasing global hunger, but it is also a spatially considerate solution, akin to my proposal to vertical farming. The 1.53 billion hectares of cropland, and 3.38 billion hectares of pastures, accounts for a resulting 38% of land you’ll see on a map being used for agriculture and farming. But, whereas one pound of beef requires 200 square meters of land to produce, insect protein requires just 15 square meters for the same production of crickets. Again, fixing one factor of our agricultural system, the inefficiency of growth space, affects many other aspects of our problems concerning food justice.

Another way insect protein solves our issues of food justice and environmentalism is the question we have raised above concerning water. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live without regular access to drinking water. Returning to the inefficiencies of our water use in agriculture, this could be reduced dramatically. One kilogram of beef requires no less than 22,000 liters of water to produce; one kilogram of crickets requires no more than one liter of water. Farming insects instead of livestock is, simply, twenty-two thousand times more water efficient, kilo for kilo. There is no question that transitioning to insects is a better environmental alternative to current livestock farming. And, as though this were not enough, insects as food are demonstrably more efficient in terms of digestive capability: roughly 80% of a cricket is edible and digestible, whereas just 40% of cattle is edible.

A final consideration regarding eating insects is the obvious one: the gross factor. Most westerners like myself are repulsed at the idea of snacking on a cricket for breakfast. But, despite such resistances, it’s not as though you and I are strangers to eating insects. That’s right, for every 100 grams of lettuce consumed, an average of 50 insects have made it into our mouths as well (i.e. aphids, mites). This is true not only of lettuce, but of foods like peanut butter, and drinks like beer. We may not care to admit it to ourselves, but bugs are extremely common to the human diet.

Synthesizing our Supper

Throughout the previous pages, I have tried to approach some multifaceted concerns regarding food justice (population increase, climate change, starvation, etc.) and propose practical, immediate solutions to those concerns (vertical farming, shifting our diets from animals to insects, etc.). None of these strategies on their own will cause a volte face in our food system. There is too much entrenched corruption, bureaucracy, greed, and tradition at stake to see such an overnight change. But these shifts in agricultural practice, location, dietary makeup, and environmental relationships, can be taken up in any location, by anyone, at any time. The science has yielded quite an abundant harvest of innovation and technology to move forward, it is up to us to ensure we don’t let that harvest rot and go to waste.

No Preamble: Eating Animals

February 29, 2016

Eating-Animals

I have struggled with the ethical dimensions of eating animals for most of my life. It first came to my attention when my high school crush, Katie Loughran, shared PETA’s “Meet Your Meat” video. I was appalled, like most who see the short (horror) film. Thus followed nine months of capricious veganism, and then many years of relapse. Even yesterday, my boss cooked up turkey chili in the breakroom and brought me a bowl: I ate it with relish, as he is a fantastic chef. But in the back of my mind lurks the ever-growing concern: The question of what kind a person I am in eating animals.

I write this brief reflective essay regarding a book I just finished, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Speechless, or rather, so full of words I can’t contain them, I write this rambling account of the ways in which his book moved me; personally, socially, ethically, etc. the depth of Safran Foer’s argument cuts right through me. Personally, I’ve acted via the “conscientious inconsistency” Foer evokes regarding vegetarianism. Socially, I’ve found myself accepting meat from my manager/coworkers because they’re proud of their cooking and want me to share in their delight. As Safran Foer notes, it’s often more rude to turn away the meat than it is to stick to my principles. Ethically, I vacillate between thinking (1) it’s wrong to kill animals, and (2) it’s not inherently wrong to kill animals for consumption, but it is obviously wrong to kill animals in the manner of the factory farming system; this book does wonders to complicate that picture even further, as the author repeatedly suggests that there is indeed genuine ambiguity about killing for necessity. The list goes on ad nauseum, but Foer’s mantra that “Stories about food are stories about us” rings true for my own life.

The brief section titled “Battery Cage,” early on in the book, startled me to my core. Until reading that meager little page, I surprisingly hadn’t performed the thought experiment of being, myself, an animal confined to a cage for slaughter. The horror had gripped me in the studium (intellectual life), but never heretofore in the punctum (emotional life). The way Safran Foer turns the second person into a reinvisioning of the hierarchy between humans and animals is unnerving, to say the least. This is the first motivator for my now vegetarian/vegan-leaning ethical stance (if not yet in practice).

The section titled “Environmentalism” also shook my foundations, in the sense that my higher education is aimed towards Applied Environmental Ethics. In the light of his analysis, I must conclude that being a “casual omnivore,” as Foer puts it, is environmentally inexcusable (again, that difference between the studium and the punctum). It’s one thing to read about the environmental degradation resulting from our agricultural practices and, implicitly, my food choices. It’s another thing to see it phrased so bluntly: “omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.” I don’t want to say something cheesy and (temporally) insincere but, in reading this book, my turbulence about the question of eating animals was absolutely slaughtered (pardon the pun). I can intellectually commit to reducing my meat intake–perhaps to zero–but habitually retraining myself and, in some cases, going out of my way and others’ to behaviorally commit, is another matter.

And, though Safran Foer doesn’t outright name it, his provocation for a “democratic” farm system reminds me much of what I’ve explored this semester regarding Food Sovereignty. I hadn’t heretofore transmogrified that movement into political terms (surprising considering how often I bloviate about American politics). To do so would require replacing “corporate” concerns with “civic” ones and, thus, extremely effort exerting. But, as with the work of John Dewey regarding the philosophy of education, redirecting the means and aim of any system towards democracy seems–to me at least–a noble, fruitful, optimistic endeavour.

I only maintain one worry regarding Safran Foer’s compelling narrative/argument: I find it interesting–if not frustrating–that Safran Foer neglects to mention artificially grown meat. For those unfamiliar, we are now on the cusp of scaling up meat tissue, grown without any animal to raise or kill. If our concern is, as Safran Foer writes, “all of the time […] between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals,” then I wonder how our concern would change regarding this “animal-less” (for lack of a better term) meat. That is, if we eliminate the suffering and killing of animals, but still eat “meat,” do we still have an ethical travesty on our hands? The only foreseeable objection to this innovation would be akin to arguments against homosexuality, one of squeamishness: “That makes me feel uncomfortable/That is unnatural, thus, wrong.” If this harmless new method of growing meat becomes scaled in the way the innovating company wants it to be, then how does Safran Foer’s argument shift?

(Link to a podcast in which “Meat Without Misery” is discussed at length: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/meat-without-murder)

In any case, I highly recommend this book, Eating Animals, to all. It’s the kind of book I had to read in one sitting, the kind of book that is a perfect storm of the personal, social, and the ethical. Give it a read, and see where you stand in regards to the question of eating animals.

I’ll tempt you with this brief excerpt: “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?

Hatred & Love: The Cultural Politics of Emotion

February 25, 2015

I am generally not a fan of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and similar forms of “soft” science. I am certainly not against their existence–they can be useful–but I also see the problematic elements of such disciplines. That aside, I am reading Sara Ahmed’s book The Cultural Politics of Emotion. It is saturated with these sorts of analytics, drawing on the usual suspects: Marx, Freud, and the like. For those of you who have not read this book, I do recommend it. It’s clearly written and develops in a way that I, as a philosopher, don’t furrow my brow at too much.

Ahmed’s second chapter in this book is devoted to “The Organisation of Hate.” She draws a distinction between the way love and hate manifest in ourselves, and how, “Because we love, we hate, and this hate is what brings us together.” (43). I’m willing to grant the connection of causation between love and hate and I’m surprised that I agree with this assertion. When we refer to hatred it is almost definitely in the context of negativity. Yet, when I see a forest ripped down for another shopping center, I do feel genuine hatred. It’s not necessarily a hatred directed at anyone, but, rather, a hatred based out of love for something that has been threatened or lost. But Ahmed’s model seems to resist hatred. I wonder if she would grant that hatred can be a good thing (at times) or if it is always destructive? There isn’t much more development on this point in her chapter, as she moves on to the “Affective Economies” of emotion.

Yet, Ahmed expands in the section of “Hated Bodies,” how, “Hate is an intense emotion; it involves a feeling of ‘againstness’ that is always, in the phenomenological sense, intentional. Hate is always hatred of something or somebody, although that something or somebody does not necessarily pre-exist the emotion.” (49). This seems to contradict my example of the surge of hatred I feel at the sight of deforestation. Hatred, when based out of love, seems almost helpful. It is because of hatred that I write this post. It is because of hatred that I actively try to prevent such measures of senseless destruction to our native forests. Of course I could always aim my hatred onto the object of a person, construction company, or governmental department. This just seems unhelpful in the larger scheme of things, only because I know that very few people involved in such “development projects” as this don’t have a vendetta against nature. Most of these (usually male) workers are in need of money, contracts, employment in general. How can I hate those who have the same goal as me? It is not the people I fixate as my objects of hatred; it is the act itself to which I direct my emotion.

As I distinguish between people and acts as objects of hatred, so do I embolden this gap in the case of religion. Bluntly put, I genuinely hate religion. But–and this is an important caveat–I do not hate religious people. My qualms with Sam Harris aside, he takes good measure to distinguish between criticizing “religious ideas” rather than “religious people.” It is not helpful to demonize people in general, but, rather, the acts they perform. I don’t think anyone gets out of bed thinking, “I’m evil.” That sounds absurd.

We’d be wise to be conscious about the interplay between the objects of hatred we choose. This is true especially in politics. Every morning when I’m on the treadmill, I casually watch the competing headlines of CNN and FOX. Lately, ISIS has been in the headlines almost every single day. If ISIS is quiet, President Obama is under scrutiny. I find this to be curious in both cases. Regarding ISIS, I can understand how easily the transition between hatred of acts and hatred of people emerges. This line is blurred so cleanly that it’s practically effaced. The American people are being fed objects to project their hatred onto; this is dangerously irresponsible on behalf of news media. And President Obama is always referred to as the object for political action. In other words, it is “the Obama Administration” or, worse, “Obama” who we refer to as our government. In reality, as most people (I think) understand, there is an entire system of government of hundreds, rather, thousands of people in power. If Obama had the power we say he has, this country would certainly look different and we wouldn’t be paying hundreds of representatives. Returning to Ahmed’s discussion of hatred and love, this object-hatred is fallacious at best. We don’t want the news media to select our objects of hatred. We want to be the source of our own emotions (which Ahmed’s critique of emotion would reject), and it is prudent to be careful about the objects we allow ourselves to feel emotion towards.

So in thinking about the relationship between love and hatred, I think it’s not an unfair claim to find both emotions useful–contingent upon each other, in fact. Hatred can be a powerful fuel, one which is rather more renewable than fossil fuels. We just have to be careful how we use the fuel in question. Is it ever okay to love or hate people? I’d be surprised if anyone (at this point) didn’t think to themselves, “Of course it’s okay!” Well, I don’t know. I think we can love selectively. I think love is something to be channeled. When used recklessly, I think love can be dangerous, in fact. I’ve seen emotion, under the guise of “love,” tear people apart. Love is valuable. Love is near the pinnacle of important emotions a human can cultivate. (Curiosity, I’d argue is at the top.) But, like everything, too much is too much. Love is a virtue, but it can just as easily turn into a vice. And as we think of hatred as a vice, by extension, it certainly can be turned into a virtue. Perhaps Ahmed will disagree with me on this point but I see no reason to abandon something so useful.

Russon & Foucault: Embodiment in the Everyday

February 24, 2015

(DISCLAIMER: This is a copy of a midterm essay I submitted in my senior seminar class. Feedback is welcome, but plagiarism is stupid.)

Embodiment is one of the most obfuscated facets of everyday life. We refer to ourselves as “having a body” instead of “being embodied,” which is an important distinction. For both Foucault and Russon, the body is the primary form of contact with the world around us. The body is always in relation to others, always public, always both “part of us,” and “apart from us.” To be embodied is to perform or function in an environment, whether this is a self-taught behavior or a discipline enforced upon oneself. There are some disjunctions between Russon’s (phenomenological) and Foucault’s (post-structuralist) analyses of everyday life, but one key element seems to link the two methodologies: The body.

The body is, as Russon describes, “the point of intersubjective contact” (22). In other words, the body is always a part of a much larger system—a “machine”—of others. Being embodied means being vulnerable, being “seen,” but, also, always “seeing.” Russon describes a constant tension in embodiment, a kind of polar tug between the antipodes of everyday existence: “In contact there is a dynamic tension of two opposed poles—the subject and object—that define themselves against each other while simultaneously implicating each other in themselves.” (26). By “implicating each other in themselves,” Russon means to elucidate that the conceptual “object” is only meaningful in relation to, and based upon, the “subject” (and vice versa). There is a criterion for our noticing things as objects, namely, that we can perform tasks with them. Russon explains how, in terms of interacting with the world, “We are what we can do, and the identities of those things which we contact are measured in terms of these abilities.” (31). These abilities, though perhaps effortful at the first, become ingrained in our subconscious and are “habituated” in a way so that “our directed focused attention is freed up” in performing the task repeatedly (29). In this account, our bodies become less cumbersome through habituation; embodiment becomes inconspicuous. Habituation is key for Russon, and it comes in a similar form for Foucault, only under a different guise: Discipline.

Discipline, though stemming from a different origin than habituation, is similarly important to an agent navigating the world in everyday life. The ability to type, for instance, is something which is so habituated that we almost forget we had to undergo a learning process to develop that skill. This process “disciplines” us to become skillful. Discipline works at the level of the individual human body and affects our relationship with a task (usually of production, according to Foucault). Foucault’s account regards discipline as a form of “bio-power,” which is an “insertion of bodies into the machinery of production” (263). Discipline, as bio-power, methodically increases the efficacy for an individual in performing a task. Like habituation, discipline renders learned behaviors invisible through repetitively performing them. Without discipline, or habituation, simple tasks like typing this sentence would become clumsy and arduous. There is a certain obfuscation which accompanies getting accustomed to a behavior, and “with familiarity comes inconspicuousness” (29). We are taught how to do something, which may be uncomfortable at first, since our body is not familiar with the task—our body presents itself as a limitation. Yet, through discipline and habituation, we eventually forget (or become unaware of) the spatial relations of keys on the keyboard, the position of our fingers in relation to the words we want to produce, etc. until we make a mistake and become aware of our behavior. But interpretation of objects in our everyday life—like the keyboard—is also affected by habituation and discipline. Russon writes that “to interpret is to see something as something,” or, in other words, experience is fluid, already undergoing interpretation. The keys on a keyboard originally appear as a set of tools, whereas through habituation and discipline, they merge into an individual tool. Typing on the keyboard becomes a process of producing words, of consistent dialogue between intention and action. The body is as salient as the mind in this convergent process.

Foucault is concerned with discipline, but, also, power relations. Power, for Foucault, is relational (between structures and individuals). As we’ve seen, bio-power—as opposed to other kinds of traditional power—is productive, a kind of bottom-up system which maintains the power “to foster life or disallow it.” (261). Traditionally, power is only effective when seen but, as Foucault’s account elucidates, power has become “inverted,” and power has become “invisible.” In this way, power is all the more effective and pervasive. Again, power for Foucault is not oppressive. Power is only effective as long as an agent is able to recognize that power; Foucault describes death itself as “power’s limit” (261). At which point, power becomes obsolete, and, obviously, ineffective.

Power is manifest in relationships, and only in relationships. With relationships of power often come disciplines. Through disciplines–mirroring Russon’s description of the “inconspicuousness” of activities through habituation–activities become second-nature, and bodily resistance decreases. In his essay Docile Bodies, Foucault describes the malleability of the body in an example of a soldier: “the soldier has become something that can be made…can be constructed” (179). The body, as seen in the soldier, is something which can be molded, disciplined, and reshaped like clay to represent something else entirely. A recruited soldier can have no battle experience but eventually–through time and training–bodily resistance decreases; behaviors which once seemed daunting become natural, and attention is “freed up” from such tasks. Standing with correct posture, marching in uniform, and similar activities become “normal.” This commodification of the individual human body has not always been the case, according to Foucault, who writes, “in every [past] society, the body was in the grip of very strict powers, which imposed on it constraints, prohibitions, or obligations.” (180). In other words, until the last few hundred years of population growth and urban density, power has taken the sovereign form. Power, until recently, has been deductive. There has not traditionally been the expectation to become “disciplined” in a way that is considered “normal” or even “ideal.” Our situation of everyday life in these post-industrialized societies has resulted in a “constant subjection of its forces and imposed on them a relation of docility-utility, [which] might be called ‘disciplines.’” (180). But, additionally, bio-power is manifest in terms of regulatory controls. This form of power takes charge at the population level, as opposed to discipline affecting merely the individual. Regulatory control helps facilitate “norms” and further commodifies the body in a way that is “ordinary” or “probabili[stic]” (264). Through discipline, the body is at once “subject” and “object” simultaneously. The subject begins to discipline itself, and the body is its object. Through regulatory control, the body becomes intersubjective, or a part of a collective object. As we have established, to be a self is to be embodied, and to be disciplined/regulated is to be an “object” in the intersubjective sense.

Being embodied in an intersubjective world, according to Russon, certainly contributes to the sense of self as a “discrete” chooser (9). One is constantly visible, open, and vulnerable, all while maintaining the power of subjective selfhood. This developed subject sees itself as an “independent, free agent, ontologically equal with all others” (83). In being “ontologically equal” with others, one develops a shared status and value of normalcy. Normality arises as a symptom of intersubjective life, and as a symptom of power relations between oneself and the world. For Russon, “To hold the normal self as an ideal is to hold this notion of independent choice as the primary value in human existence,” or, in other words, the very feeling of independently exercising choice is definitive to the experience of everyday life. Russon writes—perhaps with consternation—how “our inescapable nature is to be outwardly directed, whereas the ideal of normalcy portrays us as inherently inward.” (90). Again, the “tension” Russon describes arises into plain sight. There is a constant tug between the self as outward and the self as inward. This is a neurosis. This neurosis can be harmful, as Russon explains, “a society premised on the narrative of normalcy produces a ‘civil’ society of people alienated from themselves and from each other” (90). This sounds a lot like Foucault’s account of regulatory bio-power, which is manifest at the population level. Yet, Russon describes the neurotic tension between individual selves and others as both alienating and liberating (to varying degrees). However, for Foucault, normality takes a different route into being: “normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age. For the marks that once indicated status, privilege, and affiliation were increasingly replaced…by a whole range of degrees of normality” (196). In other words, “the power of normalization imposes homogeneity” (196). By “homogeneity,” Foucault seems to be pointing at a kind of universal quality which emerges in normalcy—the discipline and regulatory control of docile bodies. The human being, once thought of as innate and fixed, becomes open to possibility: A tabula rasa. The disciplined body is normalized and contextualized in accordance with its relations of power. It is not as “discreet” as we’d like to think it is. Both Russon and Foucault would appear to reject this notion of the free, independent self, absolved of externalities.

Foucault’s post-structuralist view of everyday life differs from Russon’s phenomenological account, but there clearly seems to be some overlap between the two. Russon argues that “we are what we can do” (31). This is a limiting and empowering claim, as embodiment necessitates our relationship with the intersubjective world around us. This relationship would be described in terms of power on Foucault’s account. Our body is a part of bio-power, which has two dimensions: Discipline and Regulatory control. These two aspects of Foucault’s bio-power, combined with Russon’s concept of habituation, serve to normalize us—to decrease bodily resistance and streamline our everyday lives. Foucault’s “docile body” in accordance with Russon’s “embodiment” and “habituation” sets the stage for the medium through which “an agency can emerge” (27). It’s clear that the self is contingent upon the body. Perhaps, instead of weighing our actions on a scale of independent “discrete” decision-making, we should weigh our actions in a systematic way—considering the relationship of power between us and the world. If we want to empower ourselves, we should recognize the nature of normalcy and our embodiment: Both limiting and empowering. Only then can we be the origin of our choices and make informed, effective decisions in our everyday lives.

//.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel, and Paul Rabinow. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.

Russon, John Edward. Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. Albany: State U of New York, 2003. Print.

 

Thankful thoughts this Thanksgiving

November 27, 2014

“Thanksgiving in the USA. Of a time when food was scarce. Now abundant, at dinner we over-eat even more than we usually do.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

Despite the oddity surrounding the circumstances which precipitated our holiday of “thanks,” I’d like to take the time to conform to this American tradition and roughly adumbrate things this year has brought me so far. It’s too seldom that I–or my friends and family–give thanks openly and around each other. Our culture tends to glorify those who are hard-working and independent which, as a result, conditions us to dislike those who ask for or need “handouts.” But everyone needs a handout from time to time. There is no harm in that. Altruism is one of the strongest, most positive traits of human kind.

When we think of Thanksgiving, we need not think of the alleged pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. If we are to look into the distant past at all, I would argue that we reflect on the unchecked despotism the early American settlers enacted upon the natives. Let us reflect on the octicimation of their population, not all intentional, but fatal all the same. Let us remember that these lands are stolen property, and this Earth is patient with our failures and abuses. That, I believe, would be a true empathic exercise.

So what am I thankful for? Well I suppose I would begin by being thankful for the cosmos, which may sound fatuously large-scale, but without it we would not exist. This is to include not only the planet on which we find ourselves alive, but the Universe which contains it.

In terms of my education, I am thankful to have stopped vacillating between major choices. I am now a self-declared Philosophy & English double major. I have realized that I am not to follow the traditional path America has lain out for me; instead, I shall be a lifelong learner. The play between thought, language, and reality will never cease to fascinate me and I don’t believe these topics will come to firm conclusions any time soon.

I am thankful for the sciences, large and small, who have messily saved countless lives and, in many ways, allowed us to create the (decent) society we participate in today. I am thankful for science educators and researchers and philosophers alike who contribute to the advancement of our global community. I am thankful for those who research into human health so I can read their work and not die any time in the near future.

I am thankful for the immense intellectual door-stoppers left behind by dead people, such as Christopher Hitchens, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Arthur Schopenhauer, Sigmund Freud, Carl Sagan, and many others. I have read more books in 2014 than I believe I have in my entire life and hope to double that by next year.

I am thankful for nature and my growing love for her. I have adopted several plants throughout my house and garden this year and, as a result, have started noticing my perception of the world shift a bit. I am thankful for my cats, Smokie and Zuko. They are my “mobile decorative objects,” to borrow from Muriel Bradbury, but also my friends.

I am thankful for those in my life who are, above all else, willing to be honest and listen. Those two characteristics are invaluable in a person. Honesty is nothing particularly profound, but without it, we would be living in a rather backwards world. The willingness to listen is indispensable. Taking the time to listen to others is the best way to learn about yourself. I mean to say, in other words, that whether you listen to your friends or audiobooks or debates online is irrelevant. Listening to others is fascinating and is one of the most helpful tools to facilitate empathy towards people.

Those are simply a handful of things I find myself thankful for this year. I could absolutely expand this list. There have been beautiful moments of camaraderie, fascination, struggles, trips, and isolated serenity. Hopefully “future me” won’t come back and criticize this list to hell.

And finally, what am I hopeful for in the years to come? (And these will be slightly naive and ridiculous and fallacious: point acknowledged.)

I would hope to see true equality emerge in the world, creating a global community not separated by country lines and province divides. We are one and the same: Life. This planet is the only chance we currently are aware about to keep life alive. So far, I would argue, we are not doing a fantastic job of breaking down these barriers. We can do better.

I would hope to see self-driving cars take over the methods of transportation in the world. I don’t currently have access to recent global car crash rates, but in the United States alone, each year over 30,000 lives are brutally ended in wrecks. Self-driving cars would eliminate the vast majority of that senseless killing, reduce stress in general, eliminate the insanity of insurance rates, police tickets, and perhaps (getting optimistic here), removing the need of owning cars altogether.

I would hope to see space travel to become commercialized AND accessibly priced. We have the technology budding, its simply a matter of time.

I would hope to see the Internet continue to grow freely and without legislative barriers. Filtering human consciousness is of no concern to a “democracy” (I’m looking at you, U.S.A.) and to do so is to hinder innovation of all forms, most notably social progress.

Again, Future-Blake will likely return to this post with consternation. Hopefully, but hopefully not. Those are my thoughts for today. Happy Thanksgiving, and stay curious.