Tag Archives: universals

Strangers amongst us

We struggle with strangeness. Whether we fear who’s different or merely fear those who fear the different differently from us, home’s where our differences largely go unnoticed. It struck me how self-evident it has become to see public announcements, on a hurricane for instance, accompanied by somebody translating them into sign language. It’s difficult not to see this as progress; therefore difficult to see it as anything but self-evident. But it’s not self-evident. It’s the outcome of a struggle by strangers incapable of hearing and once discarded by society and probably labeled “deaf and dumb”. Well, it is their struggle and that of caring people who provided an understanding home to them in which they could be understood and, hence, come to their own understanding. How did they realize such a remarkable feat making acceptance of deaf people into something “so general as to make it unthinkable to see it as someone’s original idea”? The latter is Kafka’s description of that immediate insight which, once made, seems to become so entrenched in custom it is like it could not have been otherwise. Wittgenstein would probably say it becomes part of the grammar of deafness that it is a difference that ought to be accommodated. Still, however self-evident it may seem now it was anything but self-evident not so very long ago.

How can that be? What can we learn from it?

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Job’s Metamorphosis

‘My dear parents,’ said the sister banging her hand on the table by way of an introduction, ‘things cannot go on any longer in this way. Maybe if you don’t understand that, well, I do. I will not utter my brother’s name in front of this monster, and thus I say only that we must try to get rid of it. We have tried what is humanly possible to take care of it and to be patient. I believe that no one can criticize us in the slightest.’, F. Kafka, The Metamorphosis.

Only when you’re heard does it make sense to say something.

Job only wants one thing: to be heard. His friends listen to him. They do not hear what he is saying. Gregor wanted one thing: that his sister might develop herself. She does and so stops listening to him.

It’s all right. Both get what they want in the end. Not justice or wisdom or payback for the observation of their duties. They get want they want. They’re heard. Job’s tabernacle will be blessed and Gregor’s family fairs well as well.

You can read both as criticism. That is what happens if you try to hear what is being said. Still, think a little harder when you are trying to hear something. Or a little less. Because, you know, literally both stories end on the up and up. Gregor and Job get what they want, they literally and exactly get what they want.

If you think they don’t then you didn’t hear what they said. Maybe because you were too busy still listening to what you want for them. Probably because you only hear what you want.

Try again (warning: full-on atheism ahead): Continue reading

The looping parable

I write this inspired by the work of Ian Hacking on looping effects, human kinds and so on. My sympathies are with Hacking on this. Still, I believe there’s something that needs to be added: the social looping effect needs a binding effect in reality to remain stable. This has consequences: it is too easy to reduce a specific kind of humans out of the human kind just because they are confronted with a reality that happens to be out of the social norm.

Let me make up a story, a parable of sorts, about an imaginary civilization in which an evil both real and socially constructed exists. A parable has the virtue of edification because it illustrates a point without risking the muddle of prejudice which will inevitably surround any actual real and/or socially constructed concept or behavior.

Mountains, social exclusion and initiation rituals ahead:

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The self was a good idea but its time has come to fade away

Identity is the new Holy Grail. Everybody is looking for something that does not exist, and still would somehow magically transform their mediocre existence into the golden rule. The quest for identity responds to the post-modern question of belonging. Whether they are patriotic nationalist or universal subcultural causes, we constantly contrive collectives within which to identify with other people. This is post-modern because it is a melancholy for modern times when belonging belonged to the self-evident, except for those who self-evidently did not belong – the gays, the displaced, the ill, the Western Easterners, the out-of-luck. It’s the excluded who shaped these post-modern times because they frantically started a quest for being included ‘somewhere’. This was, for them, of the essence because not-belonging was the essential problem they experienced in modernity.

The rule is that the exception always has a tendency to become the rule. The exception is entropy, and it causes energy to shift to keep it under control. This is how in modern times the excluded discovered this problem of identity, that quickly became the post-modern problem for everyone. The meaning of life was transformed into the meaning of me and here we are trying to resolve our selves in an identity with others. Continue reading

Cannery Row (II)

“I was glad when you hit me,” Mack went on. “I thought to myself – ‘Maybe this will teach me. Maybe I’ll remember this.’ But, hell, I won’t remember nothin’. I won’t learn nothin’. Doc,” (..)
J. Steinbeck, The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, Penguin Books 2009, Cannery Row, p. 496.

But he did learn. He was made to learn. Somehow learning is a sad thing because learning is leaving something behind and speeding away from it and that is why it is so common not to want to learn. Learning is picking up speed without knowing where you are getting to faster. There is a deep universal melancholy for a state of innocence which is a state of non-learning: the status quo.

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A Contrast between Individualistic and Social Theories of the Self

“The difference between the social and individual theories of the development of mind, self, and the social process of experience or behavior is analogous to the difference between the evolutionary and contract theories of the state as held in the past by both rationalists and empiricists. The latter theory takes individuals and individual experiencing – individual minds and selves – as logically prior to the social process in which they are involved, and explains the existence of that social process in terms of them; whereas the former takes the social process of experience or behavior as logically prior to the individuals and their individual experiencing which are involved in it, and explains their existence in terms of that social process. But the latter type of theory cannot explain that which is taken as logically prior at all, cannot explain the existence of minds and selves; whereas the former type of theory can explain that which it takes as logically prior, namely, the existence of the social process of behavior, in terms of such fundamental biological or physiological relations and interactions as reproduction, co-operation of individuals for mutual protection or for the securing of food.”
George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology, The University of Chicago Press, 1977, p. 242.

I wanted to edit and shorten this but I didn’t. In fact, I needed to battle the urge to go on quoting the next page. It is what it needs to be: the sober discovery of an inescapable truth we could not but evolve to discover. Nevertheless, evolution works in mysterious ways; after half a century the fact is that the traditional (and false) position still prevails. Whatever.

But if the mind is not born with the body and the social not the deliverance of the individual, then death of body and cessation of individuality is not co-extensive, at least not necessarily so, with the termination of mind, socially speaking. Yes, I am talking here about the commonplace notion that one lives on in one’s works – albeit without the usual understanding of ‘one’, ‘living’ and ‘works’.

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The Test of Time

“So conceived and supported, the Test of Time is nevertheless made ineffective by the intractable naiveté of its assumptions. For isn’t it naive to suppose that history will allow only the best to survive? (..)
(..) Considering the frequency of natural calamities, our treatment of warfare as a seasonal sport, and the insatiable squirrelliness of human greed, it should be an occasion for surprise when anything excellent survives.”
W. Gass, Tests of Time, The University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 110-111.

As is his habit, Gass approaches his topic as one who out of curiosity approaches a body lying on the ground only to skirt it and skid away at a 90° angle from his incoming trajectory without even having ascertained whether the person whose body was near inspected was still alive.

The question isn’t whether what survives is excellent but whether who excels is, can be, mortal. The answer is that the excellent cannot perish. The cause of all confusion is that the Test of Time is thought to hold with respect to works and names of personalities whereas any real test of time merely applies to who lives on – however anonymously – as a source of something that had not existed if she had not contributed to that something.

Let me explain:

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