Abstraction, Production, and the Possibility of Cosmopolitanism

 

diogenes-statue-sinop-enhanced

Last week I wrote a post entitled “Nature, Nihilism, Nationalism, Morality, and the Existence of Superiority.” I’ve continued to ponder those same musings.

I’ve wondered to myself “What is the actual value of ‘nationalism’?”

This is at once both a genuine and a rhetorical question. (Here my thinking is both scattered an nonlinear, please bear with me).

Humanity has persisted primariy because of its capacity as a Tool Being. For example, our survival has been predicated upon the following ‘tools’:

  1. abstraction – the ability to create meaning-laden ‘symbols’ and ideas (language, mathematical notation, etc.)
  2. cooperation – the complex creation of ‘social’ life throug the establishment of norms and values (also abstractions).
  3. production – that is, the ability to create ‘tools'(/technology) – both material and non-material (symbols, ideas, norms, values, ect.)

In this regard, perhaps above all, the key to our survival is our neural plasticity. That is, our ability to not oly cognize but, to ‘re’-cognize, examine, observe, evaluate, and change/adapt ourselves, our ‘tools’ and ‘tool’ methodologies, i.e. our symbols, ideas, norms, and values.

A nation-state, for example, is but an abstraction, a non-material tool, its underpinnings being only symbolic. It is a ‘Production’ of ‘Abstraction’ and ‘Cooperation’. The nation-state is a combinative outcome (production) of ‘social’ (cooperative) Institutions (abstraction); the combination of the ‘state’ (Political Institution) and the ‘nation’ (Cultural Institution). Even its borders are non-material and are an arbitrary creation. No doubt like any other symbolic product of tool creation, it was an attempt to serve a purpose but, at what prce? At what cost? Has the ‘end’ justified the means? It has certainly not been without its faults. It has been and continues to be historically rife with tension, terror, and turmoil. Perhaps, it is a tool/technology that has out lived its usefulness, especially given the immense economic and ‘ecological’ disasters we are facing at present.

Rather than attempt to continue to ‘cement’ and ‘concretize’ a non-material notion, perhaps we should begin to ‘plasticize’ such cognitions, re-evaluate their performance, and make the necessary adaptations. Perhaps, a return (of sorts) is in order, a return and re-invention of the thought of Diogenes, a reinvigoration of a kind of cosmopolitanism, in which one’s primary identification is neither the nation-state nor the city-state but, to the polis of the cosmos, citizens of the world.

However, I don’t mean this in some idealistic or utopia way. In proposing a kind of cosmopolitanism I’m not advocating cultural relativism (multiculturalism/’tolerance’) – whch suggests that all cultures and all cultural practices have equal vaue.This is an ideological tool for hegemonic utilization which seeks to establish something of an implicitly or explicitly homgoneous mono-culture. In many cases, the multiculturalist endeavor actually avoids ‘difference’ and fails to honestly or authentically acknowledge the Otherness of the other and the corresponding inequalities. In this way multiculturalism actually serves as a means to maintain the status-qou. Multiculturalism functions as a kind of invisible imperialism and a cloaked colonialism supporting dominant culture (cosumeristic globalization, perhaps?).

By saying that I question the supremacy/superiority of some cultures or doubting that there are superior cultures I am not proposing that they are all of equal vaue.

On one hand, I’m attempting to avoid ethnocentrism, which attempts to judge another cuture by the standards of one’s own. This impairs sociological analysis, and what is needed is the furthered development of a sociological uderstading of culture.

On the other hand, I’m acknowledging that the atrocities denounced by the ‘tolerance’ of multiculturalism is, in fact, implicitly persistent within the muticuturalist’s culture. For instance, one may openly protest the malevolent sexism within the barbarous act of female genital mutilation but, will probably have nothing to say about the litanty of mutilations known as Plastic Surgery performed and undergone for no other reason than as an attempt to conform one’s body to the Western notions of sexiness, masquerading as a free-choice.

“The thing to do,”as Zizek explains, “is to change the entire field, introducing a totally different Universal, that of an antagonistic struggle which does not take place between particular communities, but splits from within each community, so that the ‘trans-cultural’ link between communities is that of a shared struggle”.

The point, then, of this re-invented cosmopolitanism is not  cultures of ‘equal value’ but, equal struggle. It is the universality of struggle and power relations. The universal unification of struggle betwen more and less advantaged groups. Universal Citizens of universal struggle universally united by the emancipatory struggle towards universal liberation.

 

 

Nature, Nihilism, Nationalism, Morality,and the Existence of Superiority….

sorrieu


Most of the time I find social media, especially Facebook, insufferable and I grow increasingly impatient with the incessant stream of inconsequential fodder posted under the pretenses of ‘content’. Yet, as many times as I’ve wanted to pull the plug, and as close as I’ve come to hitting that deactivate button the one thing that keeps me clinging to my account begrudgingly is the rare opportunity to actually engage in intelligent discussion. Below is a snippet of one such conversation. My sparing partner, a Facebook friend with whom I differ in opinion greatly, is someone I respect and consider to be a very intelligent and learned individual. We were participating in lively yet very respectful debate/dialogue regarding nationalism, the supremacy or superiority of some cultures to others, nihilism, morality, and the recognition of good and evil. The gist of my friend’s proposal was that history reveals that there are indeed superior cultures, that superiority finds its basis in nature, and that, amongst many other topics lol, nihilism does not supply a push towards betterment in the same way that morality does. Below is a summation of my response, I’d love to know what you think.
As crass as this may seem one must begin by asking what is ‘superiority’? What does it mean for something to be superior, especially in relation to an alternative? What is the methodological criteria by which to judge superiority? Who is it precisiely that decides/judges and by what authority have they been deputized to do so?Is the means by which to do so objectiviably verifiable and tangible? What is it’s legitimating determination?
Or, is it simply a question of the majority or the greatest number? Here, even utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill, with their ethical calculations, are suspicious, seeing the totalitaran ability of the ‘many’ to encroach upon the liberty of the ‘few’ as unavoidably authoritarian and un-ethical.
Also, I’m not sure its conducive to propose the presence of ‘superiority’ in nature, the categorization being an entirely anthropocentric notion/description. In nature it is more accurate to speak of genetic ‘fitness’ and environmental ‘adaptability’. Even if we do, for the sake of argument, accept the terminological idea to have ‘natural’ (for lack of a better term, *I must note that the division between nature and society is a false dichotomy) implications we can see that while there are certainly creatures that are superior in the ‘particular’ they are not superior universally, i.e. there may be superior swimmers, superior, climbers, superior runners, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that a species is superior  in every way or superior to all other species. (This kind of notion of superiority and supremacy seems to waft of a kind of implicit fascism and despotism, is it not this same kind of thinking that was used to justify slavery and the oppressive subjugation of indigenous peoples, seeing them not as ‘people’ but as an inferior species and less than human?). It would also seem less than ‘natural’ to then conclude that because one species is ‘superior’ to another it should then be the only allowable species in an environment, this would certainly produce a definite and potentially catastrophic  “imbalance.” The idea of human-supremacy has lead to our current ecological state of disaster.
I can personally attest (at least from my own experience) that nihilism and ethicality are not mutually exclusive and are perfectly compatible. As perhaps something of a nihilist/cosmic pessimist myself (perhaps in the Schopenhauerian sense, here I’m also a bit of a misanthrope), I think that existence/life is both arbitrary and meaningless. But, it is precisely this void that has created for me an ethical urgency and a moral imperative. If existence is ‘meaning-less’ than we are faced with the absolute responsibility for ‘meaning-creation’. In this regard, to say that something is ‘meaning-less’ is not the same as to say that there is ‘no-meaning’ or there can be no meaning, there is simply no definitively intrinsic or inherent meaning .
“Meaning”, like morality, values, etc. is simply a technology/tool utilized in our survival – the capacity for symbolic abstraction (neural plasticity). In this regard, can we accurately say that morality “exists”? ‘Exists’ on what plane? On what level? To what degree? To what extent? In what way? Is its status of existence objective? Here, then, ‘good and evil’ are also not found in nature but, are of human invention, “good and evil” has no reality beyond human construction (symbolic abstraction – meaning value creation) and more often than not created as a means to ostracize and demonize the Other (Nietzsche’s example of Slave Morality may be helpful here). It’s interesting that in the realm of religion there are many religions that operate without a god but, almost  none without a devil. It seems that we necessitate a ‘villain’ far more. But, as Michael Shermer explains “[E]vil is not a fixed entity or essence. It is not a thing. Evil is a descriptive term for a range of environmental events and human behaviors that we describe and interpret as bad, wrong, awful, undesirable, or whatever appropriately descriptive or synonym for evil is chosen”. “Morality” is, at best, only ‘provisional’, applying “to most people in most cultures in most circumstances most of the time” (Shermer). (*quotes are from the book “The Science of Good and Evil”)
I’ve spent the entirety of my academic career and the entirety of my personal research studying and examining religion, culture, society, ect. and I cannot come to the conclusion that there are cultures as a whole that are objectively superior, especially not absolutely superior in every conceivable way. Like the nature example above, we could reasonable say that some aspects of cultures are superior (infrastructure, economy, judicial systems, etc.) and it is not to say that one, ‘in hind-sight’, may not find one culture preferable to another. Rome had a superior military to Greece but, the ‘thought’ of Greece was far superior to that of Rome (never mind the gluttonous corruption of the Empire, lol) Roman society could be considered superior to that of the Goths but, this did not stop the overthrow of Rome by the ‘Barbarian Horde’. In the same way, European society, as the arbiters of civility and civilization considered themselves superior to the native peoples but, who seems to have had the more harmonious civilization? History is not devoid of the influence of power relations, after all history has been written by the winners, lol (here I recommend the work of Michel Foucault).
It seems then that I’ve simply come full circle arriving back to the very questions of superiority  with which I began, lol. That is, objectively defining the grounds, parameters, and legitimacy of supremacy in a tangibly verifiable capacity.
I should say that these are not necessarily questions of outright disagreement but, questions of ultimacy and validity.
As Socrates once said “I know one thing: that I know nothing.”

The Fray: A Weaver’s Dilemna

Almost a week ago I came across a blog post that an associate of mine shared on Facebook. The post, written by Patheos blogger Ryan Bell, was entitled “Watch Me Unravel“. Here, Bell discusses the ‘unraveling’ experience of one’s whole world view of ultimate concern coming undone and the temptation of nihilism that comes along with it. These grand and over-arching narratives are the myths in which we live by. As author Daniel Quinn makes clear, “A culture,” is nothing more than “a people enacting a story”. These ‘stories’ provide us with the means of describing and defining who and what we are, how it all works, and what it all means. In some cases they are the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves to make ourselves believe. And when these stories, these narratives, these world views come apart at the seams it is the deepest agony of existential angst. It is the feeling Nietzsche described of the Earth being unchained from its sun, moving where we know not, “Backwards, sideward, forward, in all directions…plunging continually,” not knowing up from down, “straying as through an infinite nothing,” set adrift on an infinitely boundless sea of an horizonless ocean without an objective or ultimate guide, without an absolute or supreme compass. To quote Qoholeth, it is “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly Meaningless!”.

Bell explains his own process of coming undone. Brought on by the severe “cognitive dissonance” of his irreconcilable and incongruent religious worldview, Bell began the arduously paradigmatic undertaking of unraveling; moving from fundamentalist to liberal Christianity, and beyond, eventually arriving at a kind of humanistic post-theism.

My initial thought after reading Bell’s blog was “This is my story!” My own experience of dissonant unraveling is a mirrored parallel to that outlined by Bell. I grew up, born and raised, completely enmeshed by the pentecostal/charismatic brand of Christian religious fundamentalism, though something always seemed a miss and askew in my relationship with this community but, I knew nothing else. The older I grew, the more I probed, until my questions became bigger than the confines of such a devoutly conservative sect. When I could no longer ethically align myself with the theology and soteriology of this fundamentalist church I made my exodus. I briefly experimented with forming something of a house church. A small group of individuals would meet at my home every other week with the distinct and determined purpose of reexamining, reevaluating, and critically analyzing our faith. It was a constant struggle and it fell apart almost as quickly as it came together. I chalked it up to my own lack of knowledge and so I made the decision to go back to school to study religion. About this time I made my way to a very liberal ‘open and affirming’ UCC church. I was reading voraciously,  New Testament scholarship, Biblical criticism, theology, philosophy,  sociology,  anthropology,  and the list goes on and on. I made a special connection with the UCC pastor and under his recommendation I began studying process theology, himself being a rather committed process person. This was a refreshing perspective at the time and I began to adopt a more panentheistic approach. Still my questioning continued never completely satisfied by any theological position I came across. Finally, it occurred to me that all these divergent theologies were complex and elaborate attempts to make the ‘God’ idea plausibly functional. I began to think that if it took such an extreme amount of effort to make the concept of God work, then perhaps it simply wasn’t an idea worth keeping, perhaps it simply didn’t work. Thus, I began to seriously explore atheism and at last this made sense, this truly resonated with me deeply, it was like coming home.

Obviously, Bell’s story not only struck me but, also stuck with me. I commented to the post with the following response:

“The unraveling I’ve come to embrace and even appreciate, I’ve also come to accept and understand pessimism and nihilism as valid and conducive philosophical positions. However, what continues to be a great difficulty is the lonely and isolated placelessness.”

To which a Facebook friend commented in kind, saying:

” I have been able to “re-knit” the yarn into a humanist/naturalist worldview that, while it doesn’t provide much optimism, there still are small glimpses of hope interspersed. The “sweater” I’m reconstructing is helping me to value each day more, knowing that time is a precious commodity.”

Since then I’ve not only continued to ponder the post but, also the comments above.

I sympathize with these sentiments and yet, I remain skeptical of “re-knitting”. These ‘knitted’ or ‘woven’ “sweater” worldviews, even when reconstructed from the remnants of an un-threaded system, still seem to maintain the scent or lingering specter of what Lacan refers to as the Big Other. Here, two other blog posts I read recently touch and expand upon this point: the first by philosopher Levi Paul Bryant simply titled “Atheism” and the second, “I Believe in Gods” by Kester Brewin.

Bryant explains that for him atheism is not “a thesis about religion,” nor is it “a thesis about the supernatural or the magical or the divine,” but rather “a thesis about masters.” Bryant explains that ‘atheism’ is ” a rejection of all masters, whether they be divinities, kings, fathers, mothers, intellectual figures we fawn over; anything raised over the rest.” “Atheism,” then, Bryant writes “is the recognition that there is no being, divine of otherwise, that is deserving of the place of master or sovereign.” In this regard, Bryant details that what atheism positively affirms is “a commitment to fraternity and sorority and other unheard of ways of relating to humans and nonhumans on a flat plane“.
Thus, Bryant elaborates that “atheism” is not simply “a synonym for that which rejects myth and magic” but, “is a synonym for anarchism, that which is without arche or sovereign…it is a synonym for those that would fight any would-be gods, whether they be divinities or fathers or kings of leaders.” Therefore, Bryant concludes that “Atheism targets not so much an end to divinities…as an end to fathers, kings, mothers, and masters…It wills only an egalitarianism of actors.”
Likewise, Brewin acknowledges that we are surrounded and inundated by the the ecosystem of Big Other systems, saying that “all around us are people who are living in service of and devotion to gods,” that is, what Bryant calls “masters” and the “worldviews” Bell analogously references as being ‘sweater-like’. Here, Brewin, too, proposes an anarchistic, bottom-up criticism from below which resists, rejects, and revolts against “the dehumanising demands of divinity” and “the systems that we have put ourselves in service of,” stating that “the most human thing we can do – and thus, paradoxically, the most godly – is to lay down our devotion to these gods” and to actively seek “the death of all gods.” Perhaps, we should, as Nietzsche suggested, philosophize with a hammer.
This raises several questions for me: isn’t every ‘weaving’ or ‘re-weaving/re-knitting’ of a ‘sweater/worldview’ an act of constructing yet another master, god, or Big Other? And, if so, wouldn’t any ‘sweater’ I could construct or knit deserve to be unraveled?
Perhaps, it is better, or at least more honest, to simply sit Shivah among the strands, falling fallow amidst the frayed, fragmented, and fractured fibers.
Perhaps, we should theologize with scissors.
Perhaps we should devote ourselves to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “the art of suffering.”
Perhaps, we should learn what Rob Bell has termed “the art of failure”.
Perhaps, we should adopt what is known in Navajo culture as the practice of ch’ihonit’i. The word translates to mean “there is an exit; there is an outlet; there is a way out”. In the Navajo weaving tradition chi’ihonit’i is what Jill Ahlberg Yohe defines as a “purposeful mistake,” in which the weaver purposefully leaves or creates a flaw in the piece, such as an unfinished or frayed corner. It is believed that this creates an outlet or an exit for the spirit that gave rise to its construction to escape; it is not pigeonholed to the piece,not constrained by the construct. As Yohe explains that this practice simultaneously materializes “the positive attributes of human imperfection and humility,” while also creating “a symbolic path for the survival of the weaving tradition to continue into the future.” This culture proposes that perfection is not something to be desired or even sought, as it is ultimately a negation of our humanity.
Perhaps, everything we construct should be purposefully flawed. Perhaps everything we do should intentionally fail and fall short.
Perhaps, every ‘sweater’ knit should be deliberately frayed and prone to unravel.
This is our outlet, our exit, our escape, our means or making sure that whatever Big other, be it god, master, father, mother, ‘sweater’, worldview, that we are unconsciously serving, which may have even inspired our constructs, can be exorcised. And we are allowed to always remain open to the process of a new, continual, and perhaps even an infinite and indefinite unraveling.

Letter to the Young…

 

 

0bebd73ed1b520a4eabc0fa5528bc9ae

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One day, this world will break you

and when it does

you will never be ready

you will never be mended

and you will cease to believe;

in life,

love,

faith,

family,

god,

in everything,

although you may never admit it.

You will spend the rest of your days either in denial of the abyss at your center,

wearing a smile like paint poured out upon a sepulchre,

or

you will knowingly fall deeper into the squalor of existence,

embracing the black malevolence of your being,

casting light upon the cosmic joke of human consciousness,

gnashing your teeth at each new passing day,

cursing the insistence of the future,

and hoping for the sweet oblivion of pure nothingness.

But,

either way

you will never be whole,

you will never be well,

never at peace,

never at rest,

never at ease.

Selah.