Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Celebrating the diffused self

And the choice is: greasing the gears or being legion…

The individuated self is a mystery that has often perplexed the ablest thinker. What is this self that gets beyond concepts and refuses to submit to identity politics? Is it entirely empty and so, controllable by way of economics, technology and the latest political image?; or is it infinitely complex and already related and therefore not reducible to any particular effability? Is the self one—something that must be made one, ‘panoptically’ as Foucault famously suggested—; or, is it legion, and is that preferable?

We have a desire to believe that there is something that all humans share in common, a common humanity. It is hoped that with some satisfactory definition we might be able to at last ground ethics metaphysically. In the very least we are numerically differentiated; you are you, I am what I am—however we are distinguished and despite the manufacturing of fashion that precedes us and defines what we are. As we each undergo change, we are told that we are the same thing, a consuming thing that differentiates itself from everything else as it consumes.

The self must be empty so that it can be filled, again and again. And the self must be filled, for if not, it has become nothing. To be something, then, is to be filled with whatever muck you are told makes you complete, whole.—Ritalin. If it is possible to be complete, it is possible to be completed.—You will either be completed or you will complete yourself, and everyone else will make you feel like you’re an outcast if you do not grease the gears!

Science tells us that consciousness is reducible, it promises it, in a faith like way. It is accordingly not very fashionable to reject this picture; indeed it may even be too religious to do so—whatever that means. Philosophers and psychologists tell us that we have to get our lives in order—that we should take drugs so that we can better grease the gears. Part of the lie of the self has been perpetuated by way of a lie concerning time. The self can “look” at itself—can consider itself as an event. This presupposes that the continuity of time is made up of parts going from part to part, and that the self transcends the parts in order to bring the parts of the self that seem disordered into better alignment. The claim then is that the bare self is stable—it can reason, it can think—the other parts of self—what one has done—are events that must be brought into alignment with the stable self. There are two lies here. The first is that continuity is made up of parts. If time is made up of parts then there must be no spaces. But parts presuppose space. So, either time is not continuous, or it is and there are no events, only generalized events that we imprecisely take to be events. The second lie is that the self transcends time. The truth of the matter is that the self on the psychologist’s clock is in time, and is considering events as an event. From this it follows that the greasing gears self itself is a construction as much as considered events, events perceived to be problematic, are constructions. Thus, the truth of the self is that it is time for a time, and that it can only be legion just like time.

Part of the reason that we are cautioned to not think this way, cautioned to not celebrate the diffuse self, is that if we find out that we are infinitely related to everything else rather than a unified self when perfectly aligned with our nothingness, we are impossible to manage and impossible to control. It is better then to be legion, to be weird, to keep ’em guessing. We play into their hands, we deliver ourselves if we are predicatble.

On the other hand if we take control of ourselves pragmatically and inconsistently, in a way that is unpredictable, perhaps we might steal the night.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

That's Sexist!

The distinction between semantic meaning and speaker meaning is a distinction that actually makes a practical difference. In what follows I hope to clarify this distinction and specify how its import can help to build better bridges between us, ineffable objects that we are.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty and Alice have a bit of a spat over the meaning of a word. Humpty says: “When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less” and Alice responds saying that “The question is… whether you can make words mean so many different things.” The inter-textual play here may not be obvious, so I’ll try to briefly unpack the idea before teasing out its difference-making point.

Humpty Dumpty seems to be suggesting an absurd idea, an idea that pushes Alice to dispute it. So Alice seems to be saying: If there is to be only intentionality behind a word, how can I understand what you mean? Or, in other words: how is it that if what Humpty is saying is true we can even use language at all? The whole point of language is to convey meaning, intentionality; but this has to be a matter of inter-subjective agreement; otherwise there doesn’t appear to be any way of saying anything.

If I say “pass me the salt shaker”, by the ordinary rules of English discourse this simply conveys that the speaker would like for me to grab a salt-shaker in order to pass it to the speaker. (Here we are overlooking the uniqueness (‘the’) explicit in the order).  In response I may or may not pass the shaker. But this largely assumes that Humpty is wrong. If Humpty is right, on the other hand, it would seem that he might mean whatever he might mean, in which case I can neither take his words literally, nor know whether my metaphorical interpretation, supposing that I’m onto his game, is even remotely correct. Thus, Alice’s response might be a warning signal of a complete collapse in meaning, whereby X might even mean its’ complete and total opposite, not-X. Evidently there is a pressing instance here that demonstrates the absurdity of a wholesale endorsement of Humpty’s point; but is there something to be said here about how Humpty is right, or does this loss of communicative meaning force us into a wholesale rejection? Are we to be mastered by our words, no matter our intentions, or is there something to be said about mastering our own words? More importantly, how do we decide?

It is often the case that what one means is simply not what one is taken to mean. Our opponents often make mince meat of our words, playing on communal interpretive points, despite the call in our later words that should make any caring individual shift conclusions about what we were actually saying. How often do we protest: that’s not what I meant! Of course, there are instances where one did mean what one was taken to mean; and there are instances where what one meant is not clear. It seems to me that in the latter case there is a worthy protest to be had; for when what one says cannot be given a solid interpretation unless the speaker provides clarification, we cannot justly impose an interpretation. In the former case, when what one says is clear as crystal, there is an opportunity to correct what one means, despite referring to something transparently.

The other day I was at an anti-racism rally, and a fellow in the crowd taunted a Jewish Defense League mercenary to come out and fight in a public space. (Apparently JDL hires larger kids to marshal fear in peaceful opponents that verbally challenge its racist, colonial agenda—an agenda masked by Holocaust rhetoric.) Of course, the JDL “thug” backed off. Perhaps it was the police; perhaps it was his cod/dling superiors; whatever. However, in backing off, the anti-racist protester referred to the masked JDL fearmongerer as a ‘Pussy’. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, a number of people in the group were quite perturbed. The reasoning was that no matter how one spins it, such is a sexist comment and reinforces sexism in society.

However, according to the difference between speaker meaning and semantic meaning, we cannot simply assume that that particular speaker intended to relate that particular person to women, of which he thinks, all are weaker than all men. He may have had none of that in mind (and it's unlikely that he had all that in mind). With the above distinction it seems that we have to try a little harder to figure out what one means, and especially if the term has ambiguous connotations. Pussy seems to fall under that class of terms, at least as much as referring to cops as pigs.

Suppose for a second that we buy into the absurd binary distinction between male and femle. (I say absurd because there doesn’t appear to be a way to distinguish the sexes that does justice to “deviant cases”. And I doubt that the point can even be given any sexual grounding). Here we are playing the game that society plays, a game that subjugates womyn (and men) to loathsome categories of displacement. Men are supposed to make lots of money and drive fancy cars; womyn are supposed to do chores and raise children. Fuck all that—and fuck whatever anyone might say about what I am; but society plays this (reductionary) tune. So if person X takes this step and refers to Man Y as a ‘Pussy’, then it would seem that Man Y is going to be psychologically affected.—He think’s he’s a Man, not a WoMan! So, it seems that in some instances it may be rhetorically affective to play the one side of the absurd binary against one that buys into the other side. Given that reading it would seem that one might, as a matter of fact, say something that is sexist (because the binary is sexist) but not be sexist himself. It may also not be wrong to say it, especially if it calls a Man to doubt His Manliness—that’s always good! 

Of course, it seems rather convoluted that in a moment of charged anger one would even take such a step. But it’s no more convoluted than supposing that anyone thinks in structuralist terms—that there is some essence that unites all womyn; that anyone in the post structuralist milieu buys into the binary. What is more likely is that one is not associating female genitalia with some bad category, associating the lovely vagina with weakness, but simply using a term colloquially. In most colloquial cases, pussy just means weak, just like weenie means weak; but sometimes we abstract from these colloquial instances and try to tell a story about what the words mean—how words mean already, how we are (always) mastered by them. One might try to inform us that there are these large categories of sexism "in place” in society and that certain words are a reflection of this point, no matter how much you try and fail to master them. Interesting myth. I refuse to buy it.

Of course, before one misunderstands my meaning, as anarchists we should not attempt to replicate problems perpetuated by other sexist individuals. There are surely sexist assholes. So, we should try not to endorse and thereby validate binary privilege by way of language, however we use words. In the very least, we might speak and generate patriarchy or matriarchy by our words, despite our 'good' intentions. We simply must take responsibility for how our words are interpreted. We simply must take responsibility for the harm they might cause. We simply must take responsibility for the furtherance of oppression that those words may generate by way of other actors. But we must also take account of the intentions of the speaker using the words; for the matter is a lot more complicated than often assumed.

If I say, 'he's such a cock', I may be interpreted as setting up an oppressive inverted binary that is no better than patriarchal oppression. However, we generally do not police such terms. We colloquially let matters go. For it would be absurd to suggest that one is being sexist by using such a term as cock, dick or balls. However, the oppression is the same. The intuitive reason that one ought not to make a big deal about these remarks is that when one says that one has made a sexist remark, the person being accused, usually, does not feel that they are sexist; instead they feel that the remark was innocent, a colloquial remark. But if it's good for the goose then it's good for the gander. Since we do not typically smash matriarchy by way of calling out people for objectifying men, negatively or positively, we can understand why we should have patience with people who make sexist remarks. Everyone can improve.

The point that the above remarks suggest is that we ought not to focus on the words that one uses, but rather on the intentions behind the words. In the very least, rather than presume what X means by a remark, we should ask the speaker to clarify what they mean. For a cavern of difference yawns between a sexist person and a person, and there is no sharp way of distinguishing these by way of words.

It seems that the first step towards healing is a matter of letting speakers speak for themselves, thereby not confusing the means they use to establish their ends. But also, as people, we ought to move forward by not perpetuating the oppressive binary, whether privileging womyn or men. Let us not intend to cause harm with our words, whether directly or indirectly. Let us not replicate features of sexist individuals in our own communities. Our communities ought to be safe spaces for everyone.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Wagering for a better life.

A variant on Pascal’s wager suggests that since we are unable to be certain that there is no afterlife—that there is a 50/50 percent chance—we might as well "take our chances" and be good. This way, we might have everlasting life for just such a reason; for it is intuitive that people that do bad things haven’t a chance in the world. Of course, lots of people simply assume that there is no afterlife, or, analogously, that there is no God. But the argument suggests that since one cannot be certain that there isn’t one, it is better to be good than bad, given the chance that it may be rewarding to be good. Therefore, the argument suggests that one should be good, if only to escape eternal damnation.

Notice that I have recast this argument in order to minimize the problems that its original formulation provided. First, I am not suggesting that one must suppose that God exists. As far as I’m concerned, there is no theory-neutral way of going about defining what one means. Thus, it avoids the argument from inconsistent revelation. (Many argued that Pascal’s argument wasn’t sufficient to make one believe in Yhwh. In other words, many Christians might take this argument to be proof that it is rational to believe in Yhwh, without realizing that the very same reasoning can be used for any God, even Science.) Second: the argument is completely ambiguous what it means to be ‘good’. So, it doesn’t suppose that one must live a Christian life, with prayer and lots of kneeling, nor that a life filled with the absence of such things would be a life that is better; rather, it suggests that being good, being a moral exemplar, is open to proof. I suggest that this would be best carried out in the manner of the ancient Greeks: to find out what it means to be ‘good’, we compare exemplars. (And wouldn't that be revealing!)

I want to focus for a second on the above argument. According to that argument it is rational to be good. If we are good and there is an after-life reward in being as such, then we have everything to gain for being good. On the other hand, if we are good and there is no afterlife, then at least we were good. On the other hand, if we are bad, then if there is infinite punishment, we lose everything we might gain by being bad. Besides, we end up being jerks. On this reading, the gist of Pascal’s argument is that even if there is no reward in the afterlife for being good, it is still best to be good, because then we would be moral exemplars. The trouble of course, is that we have no idea what it means to be good.

It seems to me that the real pressing trouble with the above dichotomy is that it suggests that we should pursue the good life, because of the ‘rewards’ that await us possibly in the afterlife; and in particular, that the rewards that await us in the next life are better than the rewards that await us in this life. The sort of desiring experimentation problematically generates dystopian apathy about our world. By virtue of such potential hopes (for better rewards), we overlook the 100 percent certain fact that we are alive (not dead), and that it is 100 percent possible to be moral exemplars. We shouldn't be better people because it may reward us; rather we should be better people because being better is rewarding.

Of course, by comparing the rewards in this life with the rewards in the next (whatever these may be), it was thought that one could thereby distract everyone from the obvious fact that being good just isn't rewarding in any material sense. So by being good, it was reasoned that one would be rewarded with spiritual blessings. Furthermore, by focussing on the afterlife, it seems almost automatic that one is less likely to make an effort to improve present conditions. (But religion has bever really been that insterested). If we deflate this idea by focusing on spiritual blessing in life, rather than in the nothingness that may be after-death, it seems we are well on our way to realizing heaven on earth by being good. But couple the vague idea of 'blessing' (material and spiritual) with the absurd logic that God blesses the faithfully obedient, and you've got a pretty good explainer for why lots of the faithful wouldnt even come close to being moral exemplars by an reasonable observational standard.

Perhaps what we really have is not a world that is shot to hell, a view that almost necessitates a positive, hopeful, answer to the 50/50 question, is there a heaven?; but rather, a world in which one is living hell and reaping rewards and a world in which one is living heaven by reaping infinite blessings. How then might this appear? How might heaven, like Eden, or the practices of the early Christians (Acts 2:44-6)--Paris 1871--be on earth? Here's a story.

Perhaps becoming a moral exemplar is a matter of simply not being leviathan, a matter of resistance to the mega-machine that grinds us to the point of desiring more and more for ourselves. The machine takes, and we, in turn, take more. Perhaps then the infinite blessing in our 100 percent certain alive life today is simply giving more and more to the earth and its inhabitants, without any intention to receive. Not a holding-in for ourselves at the expense of others; rather an out-pouring of spirit, a pure immanent dance with each other. If we resist leviathan, we become human, ineffable perhaps; and if we realize our infinity through resistance to the megamachine--that we are not simply objects to be manipulated and controlled--and we make that our daily prayer, even if an afterlife could be better than that, it may not really matter.