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It’s About Time, says the Alien.

It’s About Time, says the Alien.

I’ve been out of a math or science classroom for more years than I can count. Can’t count them due to the distance, I suppose. So it brings me much joy to learn more from the Alien about Time, its non-existence, its contingency and relativity.

The Alien tells me that Einstein was on the right track, well ahead of his day for an earthling, but never quite got there, and that contemporary meta-physicians like Carlo Rovelli are closer. But he’s not quite there, either. Since I’m light years behind both men, I have no idea exactly what the Alien means, though I do understand, now, that each of us knows time, relative to our own positioning within the Cosmos, in relation to everything else that exists. As in, it’s not the same for all things, other than its overall non-existence, though even that has shades and waves and particles of difference to sift and sort through. 

So now I know, for example, that if you live at sea level, time is slower for you than if you live in the mountains. The pull of gravity slows down time, and that pull, the Alien admitted, has already “messed with his head.” It’s so different here than on his home planet, and I suggested to him this may be one reason for his recent mood swings, which were not a part of his history before. On his home planet, which he won’t name yet (fearing my abject disbelief), most everyone is like Spock, he says. Vulcan-like, stoic, even-keeled, rarely given to emotional outbursts. Of course, he’s a little bit embarrassed about that too, acknowledging how this fits into the usual earthling stereotypes of beings on other planets. Clichés, sometimes, have kernels of truth — a cliché itself, of sorts.

Regardless, the key insight he’s trying to instill in me is this:

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together

and

I am the eggman, they are the eggmen
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob
Goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob g’goo . . .

— by John Lennon. Credited as Lennon and McCartney.

We are all beautifully, wondrously different, but Time — its absence, its paradoxes — helps make us all the same. We die. We live. We die and live again and again, returning to the stars that birthed us. And this makes the Alien profoundly happy, which he couldn’t quite express, so he offered this song instead.

(The Alien has not yet heard Nina Simone’s sublime version of the Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse song. All in good . . . )

The Alien Suggests

The Alien Suggests

The Alien Suggests

Go camping. Go together. Share a tent, a fire. Build the campsite with one another, for one another.

Wake up to the sounds of brooks and rivers nearby. Pause and listen. Walk in the forest together, or by yourself when the dawn appears. Climb the mountainside for kindling and a peak at the sunrise over the distant hills. When you face forward, spin, take in your 360s, your panoramas.

The old metal coffee pot is on the grill. Share it with friends. Leave your phones at home. No TV. No news. Swap the virtual for the real. Swap bad fictions for the real.

Laugh and sing with one another, like you did when you were young and unafraid. Like you did before you fell for the lies and distortions and myths of the modern world – the lies, distortions and myths of the reaction to that world.

The canoes are safe. The river flows just right for them, as if it were made for those canoes. A mix of solos and small groups on the river helps the focus on the wake you create, on the rhythms you endorse. The hawks play at making ten above you. They play at a language all their own but every bit as real as yours.

There is no one in the forest until you pull your canoes up to the shoreline and disembark. There are beings there, already, but they hide from you at first, then make themselves known. Walk softly. Let them be. Listen for the language they toss to the wind, and the wind itself.

 

Across the universe we evolve to feel our own worlds are beautiful – to us. But it’s been my impression, since I first set my “eyes” on this one, that yours is uniquely so. My evolution should counter that impression, should render it impossible. Actually, it should, in all probability, make me see ugliness and bleakness and death here, not life, and truth, and sparks one might call “divine.”

But that is what I see and feel, when I follow you on your climbs, and in your boats, and when you sing and laugh beside the campfire. Truth and beauty and other explosions of aesthetic bliss surround me, become my panoramas too.

Camp, make love, not war!

 

_____

*All photos by Douglas Pinson, with constant help (and frequent nagging) from his alien friend.

Todd McGowan’s Universality and Identity Politics

Todd McGowan’s Universality and Identity Politics

Identity. It is to die for, sometimes. But we’re driven to form them – against. We become Not-our-parents, Not-our-siblings, Not-our-classmates, but never purely so. And rarely without a multitude of complications. There is always a mix, a set of contradictions that includes conformity with, too. They flow in and out. And while we develop our identity forms, we paradoxically become less in sync with our many selves. Our perceptions of the way others see us shape these forms even when we fight against. This, that, or them. The fight itself, or its passive acceptance, can mean we’re out of sync. There is no winning here. There is only contradiction and paradox.

And when/if we put on the clothes of identity politics – a most misunderstood and misused term (like socialism, anarchism, and universality) – we most likely need enemies. We need far more than just Not-our-parents and Not-our-siblings. We need walls, and borders, and a baleful amount of “othering.”

In Todd McGowan’s brilliant book, the above (and more) is hashed out, theoretically, and pragmatically, with a host of references to historical periods, movements, thinkers and systems. He builds his case step by step, using an almost Hemingway-like method of keying off the previous sentence to amplify and extend.

It’s a relatively short book, but provokes a great deal of thought, on moral, ethical and social grounds, and unlike so many contemporary attempts to assess the present via the past, there are no hidden agendas here.

Light bulbs will flash. Surprises fill the pages. You likely won’t see things the same way again.

More on this in the days to come. Happy New Year to all.

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A Belated Update on This Life

A Belated Update on This Life

Some well-deserved recognition for a must-read book (which I reviewed here):

 

Professor Martin Hägglund wins the prestigious René Wellek Prize

Martin Hägglund’s This Life has been awarded the René Wellek Prize for the best book in the field by the American Comparative Literature Association. The Wellek Prize is generally considered to be the most prestigious award in comparative literature. Past winners include Umberto Eco and Edward Said. In their prize motivation, the awards committee offered high praise for This Life:

Self-Reliance in the Age of Pandemics

Self-Reliance in the Age of Pandemics

Into the Wild, 2007. Directed by Sean Penn. Based on Into the Wild (1996), by Jon Krakauer.

It was never the case, at least not in the modern world. Outside a few. Outside a few lone souls, able to live on grass and berries. Able to hunt and gather, make their own shelters, their own clothes, treat themselves when they got sick. Pull their own teeth. Make and fix their own modest tools. Having next to no layers between themselves and the earth. Right there. Being there always. Right on top of the earth, like mother and child.

And they better be beyond lucky. They better not fall and break their ankles, legs, hit their heads, catch pneumonia or worse. They better, in a word, or two, or three, stay perfectly healthy.
It was never the case, outside those rare few souls.

Humans are social animals. We need one another, obviously. And in the modern world, the degree of need and interconnection is beyond complex, far beyond ancient ideas of kin and village, with steeper hierarchies today than in any past worlds, arranged for us, not by us, prefabbed for us in ways both artificial and arbitrary — Potemkin-like — it’s a wonder this isn’t foremost in our thoughts at all times, as we make our way through life.

It is true that we brought some of this dependency on ourselves, as we spun out in all directions, expanded our sense of what was important to us, our sense of what we need each day, which meant a removal from the first ground of our being, a removal from the earth and any chance we may have had to truly be self-reliant to a point. Even back then, even at the dawn of things, it wasn’t possible, except for those rare few.
We listened too much to Sirens. We listened too much to ghosts in three piece suits.

We gave in. We gave up. Division of labor, division of expertise, division of the spoils, the allocation of resources decided by the few for the many.  Those Sirens and those ghosts. We’re close now to peak dependence, at the same time our personal agency, our personal control over our own destinies, may well be at an all time low. May well be peak inverse.

Year by year, generation after generation, we’ve been led down a pathway toward an existential crisis, a series of these crises, an acceleration of that series, for a host of reasons and rationales. But if we need to boil all of that down to just one, to just one reason why, to just one answer voice cause meaning provocation, it’s money. It’s “I think therefore I buy.”
For much of humanity, possibly most, almost all, our management of our consumer choices, our thinking through what, when and where we buy things . . . inanimate objects . . . stuff . . . makes us who we think we are, and this, in our mind’s eye, makes us believe we’re self-reliant. Because we can. Because we can buy stuff.

Not make it, grow it, maintain it, fix it, replenish it. Buy it. But in the Age of Pandemics, we’re quickly learning we can’t necessarily do or count on that any longer, and it’s time to ask ourselves why and how and beyond just that. It’s time to question the system we inherited and its effects, the one that spun us out this far from our home in the first place.
 

Finite Lives

Finite Lives

Kobe Bryant’s passing, at 41, is a tragedy, as are the deaths of his daughter, Gianna, just 13, and the seven others on board that helicopter. Millions across the globe have been impacted by this, perhaps especially the generation that grew up along with Kobe, watching his evolution into one of the NBA’s all-time greats. His peers in the game of basketball have spoken out, too, some tearfully, and it’s apparent they honestly grieve this loss.

My own reactions were heightened by seeing the reactions of others, the human family in moments most unguarded. There is something profoundly beautiful and moving in our ability to openly weep for others, to care inwardly and outwardly for persons we don’t even know. Alone. Together. In public and private. In joy and sorrow we are bridges to one another. We are bridges.

How many times have people wondered to themselves or aloud, after reading, say, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, why can’t we heed its lessons throughout the year? The death of a beloved public figure, and the reactions to these losses, make me wonder something similar: Why can’t humans maintain that immediate emotion of oneness with both the object of loss and those sharing that emotion? Why can’t we see one another in the light of our mortality, always? In the light that burns out for all of us, sooner or later?

I imagine there are some who can. Who have. Who will in the future. But they’re rare breeds, and so scattered they form no critical mass, or even a small crowd. Too difficult for us? To feel this way, week after week, month after month, year after year . . . Probably.

This Life, by Martin Hagglund. 2019

Not too long ago, I read a stunningly profound book, by Martin Hagglund, which explicates one possible road toward getting there. I’ll save a full review for the future, but, suffice it to say, I highly recommend Hagglund’s book.

His key insight, perhaps, is that we should build societies based on our mortality, on the realization of our radically limited time on this earth, and do everything in our power to make sure everyone — as in, everyone — has the best possible chance to make the most of their time, their lives, as they dream they should be. Artists, poets, musicians, novelists, and more than a few mystics, have long fought for the idea of living life to the fullest, and showed us why (countless times) this was so critically important. But the artist as seer, as visionary, tends not to speak in terms of systems, at least not through their creative work. Hagglund, as a philosopher, writing a non-fiction, book-length essay, can travel roads (in this case) most creatives typically avoid.

Here’s a clip from the book, focusing on, in this case, C.S Lewis grieving over his wife, Helen Joy Davidman :

 
Perhaps the next great step for Homo Sapiens will be to find a way to at least start that journey, one that heeds emoted insights from thousands of great works of art, and visionary builders of systems too. Both/And.

Rest in Peace, Mamba.

The Ironies They are a Changin’

The Ironies They are a Changin’

Ulysses and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse. 1891

Different times blah blah blah
Call for different blah blah blahs

As in
Right now there is no reason
For all of those blah blahs
And extra blah blahs

None

We need to be direct!
Tell it like it is
And not worry so much about
Offending the cliché police

The earth the sea the once blue air
     The glaciers the beleaguered soil

     The fires this time

So instead of stories about this or that
          Neuroses
This or that endlessly nuanced set of
               Ironic      distances

It’s time for swords
     Right under your nose
And clear cut goals
     Right under your nose

And beating hearts
Right under your nose
     Or
Wherever they typically go

When they need immediate attention
     When they need immediate care

Of course fables and parables and
Allegories and multiplex symbology
Still rule   always rule   will always
Rule

But on some level it’s got to be
Night and Day

Right vs wrong
Because all this ironic detachment
Has led to exactly the wrong kind of
Simplicity and lack of nuance
 
So ring that bell
     Bang that drum
          On key
          On time
 

Integration at Four O’Clock

Integration at Four O’Clock

Bridge of Shadows

I wonder about the ideal all too often. I wonder if we were ever, as a species, supposed to attain something even close to an ideal. But that doesn’t stop me from wool-gathering, looking at clouds, staring at the darkness in my coffee cup, etc. That doesn’t stop me from questioning, endlessly, the way things are.

How should we raise our kids and ourselves? Because, of course, all the while we think we’re raising them, they’re raising us in a sense, too, and all the things surrounding us shape what we do, and are sometimes shaped by what we do, and so it goes, on and on and on. There is no No-Spot from which we can become who we really are, minus them, minus the environment, minus all that has ever arisen before we reached this place and time. And in the so-called Modern Era, it’s harder than ever before to separate the Dancer from the Dance, as Yeats showed us, and he never had to deal with Smart Phones, Texting and whatever will follow all of that.

To individuate in a crowd. To individuate in a crowded room, house, state, world, not of our own choosing. To form a self amidst all the noise, the competing cries of Look at me!! The competing scramble for clean water, air and land. The soon to be competing rush, onslaught, tsunami of eyes, ears, voices and bodies, seeking dry land, seeking fire-free zones, seeking, in short, habitability.

It may boil down to the old stand-by: it’s complicated. But I don’t want it to. I don’t want to hang my hat on that potential cop-out. I want to find the impossible, and in more than just Art. In life itself. The impossible in life. Because Art without life is like life without Art to me. They need integration too. And more. Much more. They need a kind of — to risk a cliche for a moment or three or seven — nurturing that abides, that lasts, that is sustainable for the longest term. They need a natural synchronicity that becomes second nature for all inputs, for the teachers and students who switch back and forth between the two, forever.

The other switch is, of course, creation and reception, creator and audience. Can there be a human that only inhabits one or the other? Not likely. No one is so lofty, indifferent, or isolate. No one is so passive or parasitical. Unless. Unless damaged. And that damage generally comes about in course of, in the realm of, in the range of integration with the all.

And there’s the quandary of quandaries. The endless push/pull of Alone or Come with. The endless stream of fighting it or riding the storm. And all things in between. Perhaps the answer is there, at least part of it. Not in “the middle,” per se, which only exists in the abstract, within the frame, relatively speaking. The middle as in, what we see, all of what we see, our view of things, as we think they are.
A sad voice in my head, one among so many, shouts (with obvious impatience), “Integrate that!! Individuate that!!

On the day after. On the day after!!
 
 

More From the Grand Hotel Abyss

More From the Grand Hotel Abyss

Some quick comments upon further reading . . .

The author brings in Kafka’s own battle with his father, as I thought he would, discussing both his famous letter to his father and his short story, The Judgment. And he makes the connection work well between this and the family dramas of the rest of the Frankfurt school. But he adds a fascinating twist. Jeffries talks about Eric Fromm’s interest in Bachofen:

“As an adult, Fromm became steeped in the work of the nineteenth-century Swiss Lutheran jurist Johan Jacob Bachofen, whose 1861 book Mother Right and the Origins of Religion provided the first challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy that patriarchal society represented a natural state of affairs, and thereby validated capitalism, oppression and male hegemony, as Fromm’s biographer Lawrence Friedman argues. Reading Bachofen also encouraged Fromm to reflect that the mother-child bond was the root of social life and that in a matriarchal society there was no strife, conflict or even private property, reflections that were decisive for his developing socialist humanism. In Bachofen’s description of matriarchal societies they functioned as what Fromm called ‘primitive socialist democracies,’ in which sociability, generosity, tenderness, religiosity and egalitarianism prevailed.”

 

Moving from Bachofen to Max Weber, the author adds the Protestant Work Ethic to the mix, and from there poses an opposition of unconditional motherly love to conditional fatherly acceptance — and the matriarchal versus the patriarchal. The latter is at the heart of capitalism and the cause of the rebellion against the fathers.

To achieve that fatherly acceptance at that time meant continuing the previous generation’s business success, or at least the attainment of some other kind of widespread recognition. The father of the household almost merging with capitalism itself. The rejection of capitalism being a rejection of the father and so on. Which leads to this thought, not yet suggested in the book: What would have happened if women had led socialist revolutions instead of men? While it’s essentialist to believe yin and yang are that clear cut, and there are too many cases to count where gender lines blur, back and forth, both on the micro and macro levels, it’s at least interesting in a speculative sense to ponder the what ifs. Would the revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1917 and 1918 have turned out differently if women ran the show?

To be honest, I can’t see how they wouldn’t have, and, I’m guessing radically and for the better. But we’ll never be able to answer that, tragically.

More musings on the book to follow . . .

 

 

 

Grand Hotel Abyss: by Stuart Jeffries

Grand Hotel Abyss: by Stuart Jeffries

Stuart Jeffries. 2016

Just beginning this already fascinating group biography of the Frankfurt School. The author, Stuart Jeffries, is sketching out the foundation for this group portrait, primarily through a concentration on one generation’s battle with the previous generation — mostly set in Berlin. I imagine that further reading will see this expand greatly, and that he won’t remain there, in “anxiety of influence” territory. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would be reductive to base the amazing work of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and the rest of the critical theorists in this “school” solely on the clash of values between fathers and sons. I don’t think that’s what Jeffries is trying to do, and that he’s really just setting the context for more detailed exploration, but some authors might be seduced into such a formula. 

(BTW, I respect Bloom’s work greatly, so this is no knock on his scholarship. I’m a fan.)

Regardless, it is important to note how pervasive and spontaneous this was, especially for many Jewish intellectuals at the time — late 19th through the early 20th century, until the rise of Hitler. Much of Kafka’s work falls into this deep and desperate rebellion against the father, and against that father’s “values.” In most cases, it was a rebellion for a second or third generation of assimilated Jews, who thought their parents had assimilated a bit too much. That they had chosen wealth and prosperity through business over other possible ways of life, be it keeping faith with their faith, or faith in the Arts. And this seemed to be primarily a phenomenon of Mittel Europa overall, not just Germany. Austria, Bohemia and much of the Austro-Hungarian empire, though as Jeffries reminds us, there were divisions here as well. It was common, for instance, for some Jews in Mittel Europa to see Jewish exiles from Eastern Europe as “the Other.” Joseph Roth, in my pantheon of greatest novelists, was one of the most astute chroniclers of this divide.

What makes this rebellion, this break with the fathers especially interesting, even profound, is that they took their critique beyond the individual actions themselves. It became the foundation for a much larger critique of the entire capitalist system, which is something novelists like Kafka only hinted at, indirectly. The men of the Frankfurt School were interested in showing how the economic system in place created mass conformity, compliance, and commodified human beings. So their criticism went far beyond a revolt against their parents’ assimilation as Jews. One’s religion, ethnicity, gender or any other group identity wasn’t really the issue for them. It was the power of the capitalist system to seduce, make people forget, make people lose their individuality in a mass culture without realizing this had happened to them.

Am looking forward to the rest of this study, which is presented (mostly) in chronological order. I’m just under way in Part I: 1900-1920.

 

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