Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Unlike Augustine ...

Unlike Augustine, I have no caritas (sometimes translated as love) to recommend, especially not of the non-corporeal things which I do admit exist, albeit in no fashion like that of corporeal things.  For Augustine to love what is his ownmost, if you will, is not an activity like loving the work of Shakespeare or Hölderlin.  Augustine is disingenuous, I say, because once he realized what was most deeply himself, only love was possible: “I was expressing the most intimate feeling of my mind with myself and to myself” (IX: iv (8)).

Yet I cannot help but think that Augustine was an anorexic.[1] For to love means to love what is different from oneself—what is exterior to oneself—because the self needs what is different from itself.  To love oneself through staving off encounter with the outside means to starve the self.  It is “self-love” in a false sense.  It is the preservation of the self through the destruction of the self. The self is by virtue of what it is not, and if it is not what it is not, then it is not what it is.

The body continually becomes itself by virtue of the materials that it slowly incorporates into itself.  This means that in becoming itself, it becomes …

but we are getting ahead of ourselves, are we not?

Let us begin with something real, with this moment here and now, in which a man holds his son who wants to follow his mother as she leaves for work … and the boy cries.  After the first teary complaint he takes a long deep breath, preparing to sob.  Air is pulled into his lungs by the vacuum created. The microbes and particulates in the air are pulled involuntarily, like debris in a tsunami, deep into his lungs. By the time our attention returns to this miserable child, his aging father has already pacified him: “How ‘bout this …”

We read Augustine badly because we admire his love, his great capacity for love. To love is to love finitude and this is something that he could not do.  His is not love; it is caritas.  The boy who loves his mother loves profound finitude, not the infinity that cannot be taken away from him.  Is anything meaningful if it is not scarce?

When the boy realizes that his mother will die, his love for her finally has value, whereas before it was merely the love of a security that he could not imagine otherwise.  That was when I gained consciousness, I say—when I could not sleep because of the anxiety that my mother—a young thirty-something from Texas with two children and a minister as a husband—would die. She with her family lived in the hills of southeastern Ohio during the 1970s, where one would watch his or her three television channels and learn about the oil crisis that afflicted all Americans, but especially those miners, who attended the church my father served and whose weekly offerings paid for the material goods making my life possible.  These men celebrated their middle class wealth by buying enormous domestic automobiles that took drunken gulps of gasoline and enriched men a world away who worshipped—when they worshipped—with greater piety than could any Christian.

I wonder if those miners or even my parents had any idea of the scope of their world (as you and I do now—for we are enlightened!—and I’ve just shown you) and if their faith in a world continually progressing had been slightly damaged, in a way that foretells our present nihilistic condition.[2]  It seems hard to believe that the anxiety of death from above had penetrated their consciousness in the way it did mine (because what I know about them depends on what I think about myself).  Not long after I gained consciousness of the unavoidable death of my mother, I was to learn that we all stood under a dark, dark cloud of nuclear annihilation.[3]

My mother was then a small woman—and she was a woman because she had two children and despite her college degree and work history (as a teacher and as an actuary) she took care of them as a domestic housewife (and that is what it meant to be a woman then)—with soft, fragile fair skin and dark curly hair, and I think she was fairly happy. She had gotten married in 1969 and lived in Chicago and then Ohio, which is where, by some strange turn of fate, she would end up spending most of her life. Ohio is a long way away from Texas, before the advent of aeronautic mass transportation (and even after).  One travels through time to get there. Suburban eastern Texas was a land of surplus and well-being, where a white man with a college degree and the strong lilt of a southern accent could do well and have a family (if he could just quiet the demons haunting him for the Tokyo firebombings …).  In short, it was consummately late 20th-century United States. To get to Ohio one would have to drive through the southern Mississippi states and through the Smokies—a land of deep poverty for most which was still caught in the early 20th century (and this is why I use the time travel metaphor).  And then one was in southeastern Ohio in the 1970s, which was a culture dependent upon the coal mining industry.  Uneducated working class men and women lived there (for not everyone needed a college degree), but they were Christians and needed guidance, they thought, from a young man who could lead their worship rituals and illuminate their tone deaf and blind readings of the Bible (a book which all of their families had, although they may have had few others).

Her body survived the trials of that movement through time and survived giving birth to two healthy children.  She awoke each morning in a parsonage next to her husband, breathing the air somewhat cleaner that that of the residents of the valley only a few miles away.  Because the Ohio River Valley is a cesspool of bad air, such that the acid rain levels there were at one point the highest in the entire country (so I have been telling people for years).  My formative years were spent on the hills just above that valley.  Her children slept just a few yards away in their own rooms. The walls of those rooms had a surface that was rough, and the surface would hurt your hand if you ran your fingers across it.[4]

I had a closet in my room that led into the attic, if one climbed up, but what was significant for me was the tapering of the closet up into the attic—for it was directly above the stairs to the basement and therefore sat on a diagonal plane leading into the ceiling.  That fairly commonplace architectural feature allowed my unconscious to imagine and relive the trauma of birth.

Birth is the rendering of space, when one’s body emerges from immediacy into the world of exteriority and discreteness. In my dreams I squeezed through the corner into the wall—both back and forth, like that perverse child in Me and You and Everyone We Know.

“It will not fit! It will not fit! It will not fit!”[5]

[1] This term is right, because one thing that Augustine takes from the Manicheans is the metaphor of bodily appropriation/consumption—eating, in the parlance of our times—to discuss his relationship with God.
[2] Don’t worry, I mean nihilistic in neither its technical nor cultural sense (The Big Lebowski, 1998).
[3] And to be clear, we still do.
[4] Were those walls plastered?  That seems unthinkable, for southeastern Ohio.  Plaster is the material out of which the beautiful villas in Italy are constructed.  Men with lifetimes of experience could build such edifices and have them stand beyond their own lifetimes and that of their children.  Yet in America, it would only be a score of years before homes and buildings would be generated pre-fab, which is another way of saying, without any sign of human life.
[5] That reminds me of another shortcoming of the Confessions: there is no humor.  But that was just the beginning of a Christianity, which forsook being human.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

If humans are designed for knowing, then ...

Aristotle says that man by nature desires to know.  Like all Aristotelian claims, this one is wrapped up in a view of nature at large.  For Aristotle one of the primary features of nature is that it is teleological—it is directed towards an end.  This doesn’t mean, like a car, that it its wheels are pointed in a specific direction and will go that way—but that, to use this metaphor, all of the features of the car are designed for the task of going.[1]  Similarly, if we want to know what humans are, we examine what they are and this tells us their end. The most dominant features, so the story goes, of humans include reason and senses (and presumably memory).  These features combine to make a being designed to know. 
This story should raise some questions, for those of us with the advantage of not being inculcated in the Christian tradition of knowledge.  For were we to take a longer view of human being—that is, both onto- and phylogenetically—we might witness long comically futile episode in which “knowledge” (what precisely this means should also be in question) is neither “kept” nor implemented into human activity.  What is more common in contemporary human life than the sin of akrasia, in which the person fails to act on what she knows?  The woman knows that smoking a cigarette is a risky behavior, but she nonetheless does it.  The man knows that others are not—by virtue of their ethnic association—stupid or smart or sexy, but still judges them as if this were so.[2]
One can explain akrasia in different ways, but the phenomenon still shows that humans bear knowledge that does not change their behavior.  And if one “knows” something but cannot act in accord with this knowledge, of what value is this “knowledge”?
So then let’s adopt the alternative, unsightly thesis: humans do not desire to know.  The human being desires this and that, but one does not desire to know.  If this is the case, how do we who have the unfortunate task of “teaching” them complete this mission?  For even if people do not desire to know, they still must be taught.  The child must wash his hands, he must learn about the Aristotelian concept of teleology, and he must be able to perform the mathematic operations allowing him to understand his wealth or poverty.

[1] A much more interesting and accurate analysis might develop here, were it not we were interested in talking about knowing, since cars are hardly designed simply for “going”!
[2] The phylogenetic view is more tragic, as human lives are expended and exhausted as a result of knowing but not implementing this knowledge.  For example, consider threats to public health that are ignored or suppressed because of their perhaps relatively smaller effects on politics or on the economy.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Light and reality

The object has two deceptive images, counterposed.  First, the object is seen from above and is a circle with a whole in the center. Second, the object is seen from in front and is a square that is solid. A circle and a square cannot be one another, but both are true.

Yet in a third image we see the unity of the two images, because we can see that a cylinder sits before us which looks like a square when seen from above and like a circle when seen from above. The third image presents a "whole real."

But this truth, which is taken for truth (wahrnehmen, one might say), is also false.

For what is deceptive is not the view, but the light. The light illuminates, we say, and in so sayinng we imply that things are what they appear to be when we have woven together various appearances.

We have the man when we witness him in each state of development and growth, from walking on four to walking on two to walking on three.

On the non-existence of reflection

In an NYRB essay on former intelligence czar Michael Hayden’s new memoir, the author notes a curious moment where Hayden describes the interaction of intelligence figures across borders who meet and talk shop. In this tête-a-tête occasionally a moment emerges that Hayden calls a “creation mythology,” in which his counterpart would make a comment passed off as fact that expresses a non-critical judgment of political conviction.  His example: a remark that Serbian Muslims do not care for the lives of their children.  Hayden then turns this realization back on himself and wonders if his counterpart similarly treats some of his own comments in this way as mere “creation mythology.” And he concludes that yes, this must be the case.
I cluck like a chicken and say “no shit” to myself, because I am enlightened, and know all about the inestimable value of reflection, and feel a little warm inside knowing that I am enlightened. Then I start to think that reflection and intelligence are not synonymous. I think about how so many people are intelligent in being able to understand and apply rules and methods.  But that this does not mean that they are capable of reflection (as I am!).
This reminds me of a period when I was a graduate student thinking about “the gift” and using this terribly abstract concept to make sense of my life.  An erstwhile girlfriend told me that this was a mistake. This judgment became the more true as I slowly suffered through the beginnings of an emotional decline.
Yet what I was doing at that moment was—in at least one respect—reflection.  I was taking a concept that I was obligated to learn as a student of philosophy and was turning the concept back on my own life.  This is why people study philosophy, I believe (I hope). They are bedeviled by concepts that have a personal resonance.  Through whatever path led me to philosophy (long Sunday mornings in church) a concept bedeviled me, and either that bedevilment continued or was replaced by a newer, more robust, more “sophisticated” bedevilment.  The point is that the activity was personal in an essential respect.
To approach this phenomenologically, the ego has an object that it attends to and becomes (in the sense that it momentarily dispenses with self-consciousness).  This is how the mechanic or the philosopher-technician works.  Without self-consciousness, the ego cannot be reflective.
In the act of reflection, by contrast, the ego poses the object over against itself, yet it remains aware of itself in this act of attention, such that it can counterpose the object to itself.  This is reflection: turning the concept back upon the thinker—becoming self-conscious.  
And yet, to turn it against oneself means to draw forth some knowledge of oneself (an object of consciousness) and to relate it to the first object—the concept. One has doubled the objects.  If we had imagined that in self-consciousness we somehow had knowledge of the self outside of objecthood, that is false. 
This is what constitutes the act of reflection.  But then I have to turn back to this essay and wonder what it is that I think I know when I judge Michael Hayden’s non-critical concept of “creation mythology.”   I do not know why he calls it a creation mythology, although I understand why it might be a mythology.  Most accounts call this ideological consciousness.  In Marx and Engel’s writings, ideological consciousness is a knowledge of the world already shaped by the class interests to which one belongs yet to some degree oblivious of being shaped by these class interests.  This concept can be extended to include political and ethnic interests or investments.  It is generally conceived as a false consciousness.
  But what strikes both myself and the essay’s author is Hayden’s failure to recognize until writing this memoir—or simply his failure to thematize in any meaningful way—that the notion of a creation mythology applies to himself as equally as it does to his erstwhile counterpart.

This lack is generally characteristic of dramatically successful people: they do not reflect on themselves in any meaningful way.  In a certain sense all of us fail to truly reflect on ourselves, because we are not capable of knowledge of the self outside the frame of objecthood or representation.  We cannot depart from our prejudices and therefore never actually witness their shortcomings. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Confessions, Redux

More than a thousand years have passed since Augustine—now known by the name Saint—started composing his famous Confessions. Augustine senses a profound interiority, a deep memory in which he finds what constituted him.  He calls this interiority God. The dream of deep interiority is not disconnected from the violence on the streets of Baltimore.  Is it paid for by black bodies, Te-Nihisi Coates?  Well, no, because Augustine was pre-American, pre-modern slave trade.  But it continues and finds a new ground.

 Our interiority is not the interiority of Augustine.  His was an interiority where there was no inner life: he watched Ambrose read to himself with amazement. One read, in Augie’s time, aloud and heard the words spoken. This explains, in part, the power of the Qur’an today, because of its insistence on a unique aural aspect. To read aloud is to populate a room with two and to make oneself into a hearer. 

Our interiority is again a striving for solitude. The best of us strive for solitude through music played at a volume where the music seeps from our earbuds into the atmosphere and irritates others.  We want to block out the external world and to have one thing for ourselves. In the automobile, with the windows closed or with the windows open.  In the latter situation we are evangelists: “Join the jam!”

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Let’s watch “Battlestar Galactica” or “Star Wars” together and immediately we are met with an image that denies humanity, for humanity did not evolve, but has existed forever. “A long time ago in a galaxy far away.”[1] Instead it has suffered tremendous turns of fate.  These are Christian concepts no doubt.  Can we both accept the evidence of evolution and enjoy “Star Wars” as simply a moral allegory (I puke a little in my mouth at the thought)?

My body is a vestige of eternity, in a poetic sense, that what made it has been handed down throughout myriad differentiations but by continual selection and repetition.  At some profound level, I am a single-celled organism. How did organic life begin, I have to ask myself, and I do not know.  How did what is non-organic give life to the organic?

But even this is a diversion, a reinscription of the anxiety of nothingness and a clinging to some unique quality that differentiates us from the whole of what is.

Whereas, we are quite unique, albeit meaningless.  What we know now we will never know again, yet our pretensions to knowledge will leave this past moment powerless to be anything other than ignorance.

[1] Yes, I said denies humanity, for although humans may have existed since time immemorial, they are no longer mammals part of a natural universe, but a form transhistorical.  Therefore, they are no animal, but Godhead.