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August 13 2013 3 13 /08 /August /2013 01:55

I hope it will have been clear from my last post that a specific concentration of resources by a national government can distract the attention of its citizens from their own collusive involvement in supporting the dehumanization of segments of the population, and thus bringing about their marginalization, if not their destruction.

 

The previous post thus essentially used the arguments presented by Zygmunt Bauman in Modernity and the Holocaust, (subsequently to be referred to as MATH) and accepted them as a major element in affecting a more egalitarian future. Bauman was clearly not totally finished with the issues raised in MATH, however, as was shown by his successive afterwords. Fortunately, however, in the art of life (the lower-case typography was deliberate), published in 2008, he returned to the Holocaust theme in a more all-inclusive manner, and what now follows is an all-too-brief attempt to come to terms with the thinking in that second superb book. Unfortunately, even in the art of life, however, in spite of its overall brilliance, Bauman seems to go every which way towards the end, as he thinks of even more metaphors for his main message, and thus distracts from that message. That message, ostensibly intended to show the superiority of Emmanuel Lévinas' stance to that of Nietzsche, is weakened, I think, and comes across as somewhat passive, in that it leaves the power of decision about our joint future firmly with each individual person in every face-to-face encounter. Bauman was ultra cautious (and for good reason) about any over-arching scheme for resolving human problems that could quickly become dystopic, as Marxism clearly did. It made him cautious about any consciously planned group schema for improving the human situation.

 

In this, as in so many parts of his writing, however, he gets distracted by his own metaphors from the extraordinary deeper implications of the abiity of human beings to create symbolic representations of the reality we inhabit. Nowhere is Bauman shy of demonstrating how we

ourselves contribute to the collusive processes that we tend to blame on circumstances beyond our control. Indeed, major sections of the art of life are devoted to those very processes. The nub of the book, however, is the very careful comparison of the difference between the fundamental attitudes of Nietzsche and Lévinas. That protracted discussion occurs in a section labelled "The Choice", and I must forgo any attempt to summarize or simplify its arguments. What I can do, however, is make some suggestions as to the direction of the logic involved in looking at the obverse side of the Holocaust experience . . .that is the personal, rather than the national processes remarked upon in great detail by Bauman in MATH. There is in fact much that can be said about the facilitation by human symbolic ability to conceive of and carry out actions that encourage the positive interpersonal processes described by Lévinas. There is much that can be done, for example, to truly allow human beings to meet one another. It is indeed now amply possible, particularly for affluent people in the G8 countries, to foster interpersonal international exchanges, for example, in reciprocal visits between schools and school children in different countries.but also in creating personal opportunities for truly experiencing, if only necessarily briefly, the lives of others, and thereby, necessarily, exposing oneself to their world views.

 

Education, spread as widely as possible, is an obvious further facilitation of the possibilities of truly meeting, but it is not a panacea, since increased symbolic acumen opens up ever new possibilities of self-and-other deception. This is a major aspect of our human problem: the very ability that allows us to be aware of our problems also provides us with the means of avoiding feeling responsible for doing anything about them. Bauman is excellent on all of this in the art of life, but in, it must be said, a somewhat fatalistic mode. The very end of his lovely book seems to offer the reflection that we'll all simply have to wait to see where our interactional processes lead us. As I've tried to show above, I think there is a truly viable alternative available to us; one that does not presume inevitable dystopic consequences to concerted action, since it committs itself to a process rather than an envisaged end. (My own book is very informative, I think, on the importance of that distinction. Indeed, as I suspect I have said elsewhere, it is our commitment to that distinction that will determine whether we shall indeed survive.)

 

Cheers,

 

John.

 

Please read the art of life if you possibly can. Polity Press, 2008. ISBN 978-07456-4326-7 (pb)

 

 

 

 

 


 


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August 5 2013 2 05 /08 /August /2013 04:25

After having whetted your appetites in the last two or three posts, I'm now in a quandary. It isn't that I don't know what to say, it's that I do not now have to hand the very book that I wanted to quote from as a justification for my proposals. (It is the most recent edition of Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust.)

 

My dilemma amounts to this: Bauman not only described the process whereby a given national state government gulled its population into a sense of security and aspiration that it need not be concerned with the fate of "undesirables." In an earlier post I commented on Bauman's seeing this same process at work in the assumptions made by the European nations generally about the acceptability or non-acceptability of their citizens––a distinction that postulated the uselessness of some, and the superiority of others. In other words, Bauman proclaimed seeing the same kind of process at work in those European states as he had previously discerned as the dynamic fostered by the Nazi government during the second world war. He doesn't go quite so far as to assert that a similar kind of outcome as the Holocaust might result, but the implications of his analysis are that other kinds of dehumanization, such as those identified in his address to the social work students at the University of Amsterdam, and upon which I commented previously, will certainly foster disintegrative social processes. As he has also commented in relation to the 2011 riots in the UK, the explosive result is almost inevitably a breakdown of civil order.

 

In a similar vein, Norbert Elias, in Involvement and Detachment, argued that the We-I balance in all human societies was subject to the human tendency to believe that social problems themselves would simply need to respond to intellectual analytic processes that require detachment from the so-called "irrational" processes that being human necessitates, and that Suzanne K. Langer characterized as the "Feeling" element in human sensibility. As I've documented previously, Langer accorded human feeling equal status with the so-called "rational" processes of scientific evaluation. Elias is eloquent on our failure to identify the apparent conflict between pragmatic effectiveness (dependent on at least a degree of detachment)  and belonging (much more untidily vulnerable to emotional processes), as I hope will have been amply obvious in the quote from him that appeared in the post before this one. Just as the Nazis enabled a whole population to withdraw their awareness from the specific activities of their national government, so, argues Elias, it is possible to disregard those aspects of our connectedness to others that seem to make our pragmatic decision-making so much more difficult. Ethical problems, as such, did not exist for Eichman and his like. My position in Making Sense of Us was of course that that very detachment of which he and others proved capable was a major dynamic both manipulated by the Nazi government, and fostered by the alienation from previous neighbours and friends occasioned by the ghetto-ization of the various undesirable groups. (And, no, I didn't specifically deal with the Holocaust, or, indeed the Nazi phenomenon, except tangentially. I was pursuing, independently of any knowledge of Elias's work, the idea that our survival as a species will depend on our becoming aware of ourselves as a species, dependent both on one another, and on our knowing unwillingness to betray the enormous potential of our symbolic sensibilities.) Again, that marvelous article by Carl R. Woese is relevant.

 

What Bauman's analysis adds significantly to this now historic scenario is his conviction that the major elements of that scenario are again being repeated. We do consciously alienate ourselves from one another in a psychological quest for the status in our societies that would enable us to feel accepted, and, indeed perhaps cherished. Our belonging has been indexed as dependent on our acquiescence in the predominant fallacies of "consumer" societies. (There are many other fallacious conglomerations of belief, of course!)

 

Many years ago, upon first arriving in the United States, and studying at the University of Chicago, I was struck by the almost routine disregard of the nature of "public" space. Is the behaviour of a millionaire who throws his cigar negligently out of his limousine into the public street, an indicator of his detachment from that public space . . . as significant as the similarly negligent expectoration into the street of an "upwardly mobile" executive proclaiming his superiority and immunity from civilized standards of concern for others? (I deliberately used the gender specific pronoun in that sentence . . . I've never seen a woman spit in the street, or, indeed, anywhere else.)

 

You can tell I haven't yet done what I actually set out to do in this post. I'll come back later with what I believe may be the actually crucial next step. In the meantime, I'd like to leave you with a couple of Elias's shatteringly relevant quotes (this time, also, from The Society of Individuals).

 

"Human beings at present [he is writing in 1987, but it is still true, I think] find themselves in an immense process of integration that not only goes hand in hand with many subordinate disintegrations, but can at any time give way to a dominant disintegrative process." (The evidence for that possible disintegration is everywhere about us.)

 

"What bearers of the human image of the We-less I appear to suffer from is the conflict between the desire for emotional relationships with other people and their own inability to satisfy this desire . . . [This is] a basic feature of the social personality structure of people in the modern age."

 

Those of you who have read Making Sense of Us may also remember my assertion that we make sense together. Somehow, we not only have to accommodate to that; we have to use it as the basis for a commitment to a process that honors each one of us a contributor to our common future. Not to do so, I believe, would likely lead to the disintegration of which Elias spoke. Shall I put it more bluntly? We can still destroy ourselves.

 

Again (of course!), more to come . . .

 

John.

 


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August 4 2013 1 04 /08 /August /2013 17:55

Much more to come . . . But I came across the following sentence from Elias as I was preparing my next post, and it occurred to me that it was probably better to defer my drafting plans for the moment, and let Elias's bald sentence summarize what will be required of us if we are successfully to answer the fundamental question facing us.

 

The quote is from Elias's The Society of Individuals. It reads:

 

"It is probably not an exaggeration to say that, for most people, humankind as a frame of reference for we-identity is a blank space on the map of their emotions."

 

I'll follow up on this, you may be sure! How we maintain that blank space deserves some careful attention. We could do well to note how the engineering and maintaining of such a blank space enabled Hitler and his associates to detach the general awareness of the German people from their connectedness with those who were not deemed "Aryan". The German people did not engineer the Holocaust; they simply colluded with the processes that enabled others to bring it about. Our current populations are not immune from the possibility of doing something quite similar . . .

 

Cheers,

 

John.

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July 29 2013 2 29 /07 /July /2013 19:28

This is my follow-up on the unfinished business of my last post. It was unrealistic of me to imagine that, in the interim, any of you would be able to gain access to the two major sources I referred to. Never mind: here's the promised summary.

 

It's hard to imagine that there could ever again be for humankind such a severe crisis of conscience than that which faced us with irrefutable evidence of the extermination factories of the Nazis, shortly after the defeat of Germany in the Second World War. Given our current world situation, even that statement may well be inadequate, as we are clearly in the midst of vagaries of social process that we do not fully understand, and consequently for which we don't seem to have solutions. That many of those processes are inimical to humankind is not immediately obvious, particularly to those who are motivated by primarily self-serving interests.

 

Both my recommended authors have commented extensively on the Holocaust and its meaning; Elias from a perspective that takes into account the whole process of human interactions and the sources of their motivations in the course of history: and Bauman from a perspective that analyses the actual psychological as well as social processes that were operative in that particular case. Each perspective is important, and each emphasizes the relevance of the other.

 

In Bauman's most recent version of Modernity and the Holocaust he gives significantly more commentary on the manner in which the conscience of people can be stilled by what I guess I should call "distractive" activity, carefully planned in advance, and sufficiently connected to other identity concerns upon which all of us depend for our sense of meaningfulness and purpose to suggest that those very identity concerns place us at risk from people whose identity concerns are different. In the case of the Nazi administration, this distractive activity was consciously orchestrated, firstly, and most signifcantly, by separating the future victims from any humane intercourse with other people by putting them in the ghettos, and thus making them ostensibly invisible as human beings with concerns similar to our own. Given that separation, it was possible to build upon the myth of a thousand year reich which would  fulfill the realization of a superior national and racial identity. 

 

There is another aspect of that process, however, which is so pervasive, and yet well nigh invisible. It is the unconscious assumption that any realizable vision of a future more successful (satisfying) than the present must be formulable in terms of a theoretical plan of some kind That is, there must be what I have called elsewhere a kind of utopian vision, either of an outcome, or of a process, which classifies everything in terms of whether it contributes to the visionary outcome, or prevents it. In those circumstances everything that supports the vision (however erroneous) is encouraged, and everything that endangers it must be rendered ineffective, or destroyed. Tony Judt's last chapter in Postwar documents how pervasive such attitudes remained in Europe throughout the years following the second world war. I"ve already commented on this previously, but it is still for me one of the most horrifying documentations of our capacity as human beings not to learn from our own collusion with what Elias calls dys-civilizing processes. A prime character of those processes is that the "negatve' and "positive" aspects are identified as characteristic of clearly distinguishable groups of people, who are thus enabled to justify not only their dissociation from one another, but also the necessity for any action that might contribute to the achievement of the ideal. In our current world situation it is pretty obvious that the utopianism may simply take the form of an identity belief that affirms powerfully-shared collective values as being the essence of who one is. In our present global society (if we can even dare to call it that) who one is is largely defined in terms of who one isn't. As Elias put it himself back in 1987, (quoted in detail in my earlier post  "Self and Other revisited"),

 

The consciences of people, particularly the leading politicians, officers and businessmen throughout the world, are almost exclusively preoccupied with their own individual states. The sense of responsibility for imperilled humanity is minimal.

 

Elias also touched on the very similar exclusive self preoccupations of international business concerns, for whom even specific "national" interests and concerns were (and are, increasingly today) virtually irrelevant.

 

How can we together promote a "We" image for humankind that would enable us to resist our temptation to contribute to those dissociative processes?

 

More to come!

 

John. 

                                           

 


 


 

 


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July 10 2013 4 10 /07 /July /2013 00:56

I rather suspect that my last post may have been experienced as cryptic and consequently difficult by those of you who are unfamiliar with the authors mentioned in that post, and more particularly with the concept of Gaia. For greater clarity, and hopefully better understanding of the importance of what I was trying to get at, I decided it was probably better to take nothing for granted about the kind of exposure you may have had to the work of Woese, Lynn Margulis, and James Lovelock. (I'll try to be brief, but not to oversimplfy . . .)

 

I already warned you, in the last paragraph of my previous post, that you would need to take the most evocative of Lynn Margulis's extravagant metaphors (in Symbiotic Planet) with more than a pinch of salt. Never mind; Margulis's concept of "endosymbiosis" (the now generally accepted term for the ability of organisms to depend on invasive other organisms for supplementing and augmenting their own necessary internal functions) puts the right degree of emphasis upon the interdependence of life forms on this planet for survival. Lovelock's hypothesis of  a self-sustaining process of interdependence between life forms and the simply physical and chemical matrix in which they live (We, too, of course!) is valuable for its emphasis on the larger picture (at least, on this planet; the forms that the "Gaia" hypothesis might take in the rest of the universe are currently not beyond our ability to speculate or hypothesize about, but almost certainly beyond our present ability to envisage realistically).

 

Where does Woese come in? Well, it was Woese, in that astounding article referred to in an earlier post (It is obtainable by simply googling "A New Biology for a New Century"), who recognised that the gradual development of symbolic ability in human beings represented, and represents, the transition to a new evolutionary era. He called it simply "post-Darwinian", because the evolution of symbolic ability in us means that we are not now simply existing in a biological matrix in which our ability to survive depends on the workings of the same kinds of competitive and adaptive processes to which all other forms of life are subject, but that we also live in a matrix of "manufactured meaning"––that is, a matrix of beliefs, themselves derived from the manner in which we have chosen to use our symbolic ablities, and which therefore may or may not have resulted in representations that correspond to reality. We are nevertheless at a stage in our own evolution, in our time, and on this planet, in which we can be aware of the fact of our own existences, and thus, not only of other existences, too, but also of the nature of our interdependence with them. (The earlier chapters of Making Sense of Us examine this state of affairs in some detail.) I do not think it extravagant to conceive of this new ability as evidence for the evolution of mind. It may also, of course, be a fact in other parts of the universe, too, whether more or less developed than in our own case.

 

How does all this pertain to our own existential situation? If we are unable to confront the fact that our committment to pure competitive processes between ourselves is leading to disaster, it is not unlikely that we could in fact bring about our own extinction. The author Gwynne Dyer has openly speculated on the nature of the processes that might eventually produce such an outcome––Global warming producing massive and uncontrollable migrations, subsequent chaos in those societies having to cope with the immigrations, and in consequence "climate wars", plus the apparent absence of any current international ability to come to grips with our own involvement in bringing about a unified global concern about humankind's survival.)

 

Well, if there is little political evidence of a commitment by humankind to confront itself, our science fiction writers have been more forthcoming. The title of this post (without the question mark) is taken from the title of Arthur C. Clark's novel, which envisages a world where humankind has been unable to confront itself, and is in fact "rescued" from our internecine activities by invaders from outer space, who turn out to have been charged with the responsibility of assuring humankind's survival in order to foster the genetic changes that will in future produce a species of humans with supernatural powers of control. A "deus ex machina", indeed! Clark's imagination, then, foresees that it is unlikely that humankind will rescue itself. In something of the same vein is John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, which envisaged the evolution of a race of superhumans with telepathic powers as a result of  a nuclear war. Again, genes as the "deus ex machina"!

 

Much more useful to us, I think, from my point of view, is Russell Hoban's brilliant novel Riddley Walker, which imagines a surviving group of human beings in South-East England

who, many centuries after a global nuclear disaster, are attempting to establish a kind of civilization that makes sense to them, and also makes sense of the disaster whose causes are the occasion of folklore and primitive speculative understanding. Riddley Walker is a shaman of sorts, an itinerant "seer" who guides others into questioning by using the techniques of a surviving variant of the Punch and Judy show. There is no "deus ex machina" here, only a painstaking questioning of the possibility of ultimate meaning. It is a marvelous book.

 

All my science-fiction examples, of course, are drawn from a period during which the prime envisaged disaster for humankind was considered to be a nuclear war. That is no longer a salient preoccupation generally in 2013, although the shadow of its possibility still looms. Our current global concerns display a reverberation between how to face up to the possibility of climate disasters, international terrorism, and whatever the issue of the day seems to be.

 

I do not want to disparage the importance of those issues, but I do want to suggest that we need a more all-encompassing understanding of our human situation than is offered by any attention to specific issue problem-solving.

 

For the moment, ruminating upon the implications of Woese's work will certainly keep us busy, so I'll save my further comments until the next post. To alert you in advance,  my few earlier posts on the work of Bauman, Elias, and Lévinas will suggest the direction of my thinking. For those of you with access to a good library, the overall implications are examined meticulously in Norbert Elias's Involvement and Detachment, and in Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust. I'll try to summarize those implications as straightforwardly as possible in the next post.

 

Cheers,

 

John

 

 

 


 


 

 

 

 

 

 


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July 8 2013 2 08 /07 /July /2013 04:52

Readers who have been reading this blog over several months, and readers who have themselves also read Making Sense of Us, will know that I attach enormous importance to the work of Carl Woese and Lynn Margulis (and incidentally, of course, James Lovelock), who have each raised––in somewhat different ways–– the issue of the balance between cooperative and competitive motives in the evolution of life. The word "symbolism" in my title is a deliberate reminder that what now largely affects the motives of human beings as part of the Gaia system is our beliefs about the nature of the world. Lovelock himself, for example, chose to use the word "organism" as a metaphor for the actual process, thinking that it would make his hypothesis more easily accessible of understanding to the hypothetical "person in the street." Lynn Margulis has more than once mentioned that this was a tactical error on his part, but she herself has been on record as also giving a kind of personality to the process, by calling Gaia "a tough bitch."

 

I've remarked elsewhere, too, on our tendency (even on the part of "experts" who should know better) to attribute an almost personal motive to social processes, such that Bauman, and indeed many other students of social process, can talk of the power that "consumerism" exercises over us, as if it were an actual agent. I see all these manifestations as similar to those that endow motives to a hypothesized "God", or first mover, and see us as necessarily subject to his or her whimsical and presumed self-serving wishes. Richard Dawkins, of course, is another who notoriously has attributed motive to the workings of evolutionary process as if it were itself consisting of wilful intent (selfish both on the part of genes, and that hypothesized nonentity, the "meme").

 

Clearly, we human beings have an overweening tendency to see motive everywhere. Why is it so hard to accept that the evolutionary process is simply the result of myriad entitities and processes accommodating to the demands made of them (I am consciously being metaphorical, of course) by the interactions of those very processes? I can only hypothesize that the answer must lie in our existential angst about whether we do ourselves have a purpose. As some of you know, I explored the significance of this concern in the last chapter of Making Sense of Us. Perhaps I can now do little better than refer you again to that last chapter, and also, with the strongest recommendation possible, to advise that you read Lynn Margulis's superb summary of the existential issues involved in the last chapter of her book Symbiotic Planet.

 

Just a short proviso, though: I cannot go along with Margulis's characterizing our human species as little more than "upright mammalian weeds." (She did tend to get carried away by her rhetorical flair!) I proposed a different evolutionary trajectory for our species in the final chapters of MSOU. Much depends on what kind of control we ourselves are actually able to exercise over our symbolic processes. As Carl Woese pointed out, symbolism denotes that we are are no longer in a purely Darwinian era. What we believe about ourselves, one another and the world is a powerful determinant of everything we choose to do. What our various symbolisms enable us or encourage us to believe is now a major factor in determining our future. We'd do well to understand better how we ourselves have actively contributed to that process. All of Making Sense of Us is relevant . . .

 

Comments, please!

 

John.


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May 31 2013 6 31 /05 /May /2013 19:58

I was musing over a letter from a friend recently, and was struck by how frequently the writer used what are currently termed "scare quotes". It's a bad misnomer, if only because the meaning of the use of the quotation marks may be quite other than specified by that frequently-used characterization of them. If we are to have a commonly used term, I'd prefer something that signifies simply that the quotes are used for a purpose other than direct quotation of something already said or written. I'd prefer something like "flagged" words or phrases, since the purpose is simply to draw attention to them as having a meaning beyond the simple verbal form itself.

 

Still, I don't intend this post as commentary on nomenclature. I want to draw attention, rather, to the manner in which verbal forms themselves, and indeed the assumptions contained in the grammatical system in which they are used, can contain (knowingly or unknowingly) meanings beyond the purely literal. We are all at least theoretically familiar with the way in which a word is said by its speaker can convey subtle (and not so subtle!) implications that exceed (or indeed contradict) the literal meaning of the words used. Sarcasm, irony, denigration, scorn and a variety of other meanings can be conveyed by tone of voice, rhythm of expression, and so on. We are less familiar, I suspect, with the equivalences of those meanings that are feasibly communicated in writing, where it is we ourselves who in our minds provide the equivalences of tone of voice and expression.  Professional writers undoubtedly would be more knowledgeable about such ploys than most of the rest of us, but similarly, poets could be considered as even being technically aware of the subtleties of sound, rhythm and grammatical cadence.

 

The major point I want to make, though, is that both words themselves, and the grammatical structures that contain them, constitute a structure of meaning. I've commented on this briefly in previous posts, but the further realization that has just reached me (Think of the assumptions contained in that grammatical form!) is that every system devised to accomodate and communicate meaning can be seen as assuming effability. As I've previously argued, language itself encourages the belief that all knowledge is potentially accessible of translation into words or other symbols (like numbers, for example).

 

This can be described, I believe, as belief in a form of utopia: that is, that there conceivably exists an effable form for every possible meaning. I think this is both a profound error, and a widely disseminated one––in spite of our almost universal personal experience of being unable to find adequate verbal forms for what we feel.

 

I am putting this so trenchantly because the attachment to a particular systematic structure of verbal communication may mean that one's personal continuity of belief, that is, one's identity, depends upon it. This phenomenon, and its consequences, are lucidly discussed by Susanne K.Langer in the first chapter of her (now almost legendary) book Philosophy in a New Key. The utopian "country" (!) in which one lives, and with which one associates one's own identity, can be defended (unknowingly) as fiercely as if it were an actual place. H.G Wells dramatized this beautifully in his short story "The Country of the Blind".

 

Do try to find a copy of Langer's book if you get the chance. That first chapter is just the top of the iceberg!

 

John.

 


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May 28 2013 3 28 /05 /May /2013 03:46

Whether or not you are a regular reader of this blog, please indulge me, and do the following:

 

Click on this link, watch the following 3 minutes or so, and then try to tell yourself you have not been changed.

 

No need to tell me or anyone else what results, but by all means share the link with others. It's good to be reminded now and again of what we, humankind, are potentially capable of . . . Perhaps we could all do a little more to turn the potential into reality !

 

Cheers,

 

John

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May 14 2013 3 14 /05 /May /2013 21:14

Occasionally, things do come together, don't they? This post invites you to celebrate such an occasion, and pursue its implications. My goodness! Metaphysics, sociology, psychology, and the happenstance of immediate experience do come together, and we get a glimpse of what is possible for us . . .

 

Readers of this blog will know that I particularly respect and admire both the work and the life of Zygmunt Bauman; and now, here, in his nineties, Bauman again shows his particular genius in finding a way to put us in touch with ourselves that is both enlightening and humane. I can do little more in this post than invite you to read and ponder Bauman's most recent article in Eurozine. It can be found here. (It is worthwhile to print out the article, since the rest of the display at the Eurozine site is distracting.)

 

Prior readers will also know how, in many of my posts, I have endeavored to show the relationship between Alfred North Whitehead's speculative metaphysics and the actual nitty gritty of our endeavors to live our lives in such a way that they are not only meaningful to us individually, but also contribute something to a larger meaningfulness. Bauman's article, I hope you agree, goes a long way towards envisaging how such a larger meaning might be achieved. In this respect it begs reference to my own book, which concentrated on the manner in which we human beings tend to get in the way of one another, and thus, ultimately, ourselves. Bauman suggests the categoreal scheme of Richard Sennett as a possible algorithm for action. Might I also suggest that a reading of the final two chapters of my own book put even more "flesh" (Bauman's term) on that enterprise?

 

Cheers,

 

John.

 


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April 29 2013 2 29 /04 /April /2013 01:51

At several places in MSOU, I referred to the possibility of understandings of our human situation which do not lend themselves easily, or at all, to the likelihood of summary in words. For the most part, my references to such possibilities were simply "flagged" for possible future attention by readers, but on at least one occasion I was alerted by a careful reader to the dangers of identifying issues I clearly had no intention of pursuing more rigorously in the final text.

 

As I remember that reader's critique, I also remember my reluctance to acquiesce in omitting a particular problematic statement. (It refers to the work of Susanne K. Langer, and still appears, mildly attenuated, on page 81, with an end note that steers readers to what they would need to do to explore its implications.) What I have now come to realize, is that I was myself ambivalent about essaying to walk very lightly over some very deep waters.

 

I have been more fully experiencing that ambivalence recently as I have attempted to come to terms with the whole question of ineffability. Several events began to congeal into evidence that I had been touching on an issue that may well be central to the possibility of achieving a species-wide understanding of the nature of our human condition. In the book itself there are at least three other occasions on which I edged towards confronting the issue, and then subsequently withdrew to a "safer" distance. Some of you may remember the reference to Isadora Duncan's explanation of why she needed to perform a particular dance. Yet others may be able to connect that with the separate references to Einstein's and Whitehead's reflections on the difficulties they experienced in trying to put ideas into words. The important unifying issue for Duncan, Einstein, and Whitehead, was that each accepted that they were engaged in converting what was occurring without words into some form that would enable those inner representations of both feeling and awareness, although probably ineffable, to be transmitted to others. In some ways, Duncan and Einstein were, I think, more fortunate than Whitehead. Duncan found her dance; Einstein found the necessary mathematics; Whitehead struggled to find the words. Anyone who has embarked upon Whitehead's magnum opus Process and Reality will recognize the enormity of the task that Whitehead set himself. There were virtually no existing words for the processes he was trying to elucidate. The result, as more than one analyst has commented, is that Whitehead's book is marked by an almost impregnable "monumental opacity." This is of course regrettable, but was it also inevitable, given what Whitehead was trying to do? (Perhaps another quick look at Johanna Seibt's article on Process Philosophy, previously mentioned in the post "Once more, the cosmos and us" would serve to remind readers of the difficulties he faced––and those we face in attempting to read him!)

 

Lest all this heavy stuff grind us to an absolute halt, let me offer a different point of entry . . .

I was very taken, a few years back, with Terry Eagleton's speculation––in his The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007)––that the potential meaning of life is conveyed by considering the example of the interacting of a small group of jazz musicians as they realize themselves and one another in their common participation in creating their music. The relevant paragraphs may be found on the book's final pages. Eagleton's book is not only delightful, but it also reminded me of a similar analogy that I had been contemplating for some time. (It didn't quite materialize into a post on this blogsite but I've a feeling it still might!)

 

Music is of course non-verbal. Nevertheless, it clearly has multiple significances for us, none of which can be adequately summarized in words. In the same way, great visual art does something that is only inadequately achieved by other modes of representation. Similarly, poetry, drama, dance . . . and so on. The reference to Susanne K. Langer in my book is owed to the enormous potential insights of her assertion that there are forms of feeling that words simply cannot express. When I experienced myself in the very midst of the creation of meaning (in the post "Discovering our Self.") I think I was experiencing something of what Eagleton was putting his finger on, and which is also elucidated in the functioning of a symphony orchestra, where every different participant is realizing not only him or herself, but also the meaning of the music, and the insights of its composer, because the reciprocal need for one another is a given, and all willingly subordinate their own independent identities to a common, shared, transcendental identity––an identity that requires both their own uniqueness, and their intuited common purpose. That is not only a conceivable objective for humankind, I think, but an eminently achievable one, whether or not we have adequate words for it.  

 

Cheers!

 

John.


 


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