Sunday, May 30, 2010

For mystery, against religion

In an interview he gave a few weeks before his death, Dennis Potter announced, between swigs of a liquid morphine substitute and drags on a cigarette, that he had named the tumour lodged in his pancreas Rupert, after the Tsar of News Corporation. Potter went on to explain to his rather uncomfortable interviewer that the Aussie media mogul deserved not only detestation but summary execution. Rupert Murdoch's crime, Potter explained, was to have taken an innovative, democratic medium called television and turned it into a particularly strong opiate for the masses. Potter was angry at the way that technological advances can stimulate intellectual regression.

The author of that masterpiece of intelligent television - the phrase did not always seem like an oxymoron - The Singing Detective would be apoplectic, were he able to see the way that new technological innovations are being squandered today. Potter would have been particularly upset, I think, by the phenomenon of facebook, which treats the decentralised, user-friendly qualities of the internet as opportunities not for intellectual and cultural exchange but for repetitive displays of narcissism.

Over the past couple of years I have watched a series of apparently sane members of my social circle retract their denunciations of facebook, create profiles, and begin the primitive accumulation of friends. They stop contributing to blogs like Reading the Maps, where at least a modicum of an argument is expected in the comments boxes, and begin to post almost sublimely anodyne reports on the flux and flow of their minds - 'I'm bored' and 'I need coffee' seem to be refrains - to their facebook 'friends', who are only too happy to respond in kind.

How do I know about the activities of these converts to facebook, if I have taken a position of lofty condescension toward the phenomenon? Although I've yet to succumb to technological determinism and take out a facebook account, Skyler, who embraced the medium reluctantly some years ago, acts as a bridge between me and my departed friends, relaying their laconic reports to me along with her own commentaries. I've also visited some of the facebook profiles and pages that include links to parts of this blog.

For anyone interested in such esoteric pursuits as political and cultural discussion, facebook, with its millions of apolitical, ungrammatical grunts and sighs, might seem like one of the least promising zones of the internet. And yet even at facebook, the tremendous unrealised potential of the internet can be glimpsed. Although many facebookers confine themselves to discussing their last bowel motion or their next date, a few brave souls, like the indefatigable Kiwi-Irish socialist Joe Carolan, use the medium to promote and debate ideas. It might be true that, for their hundreds of apolitical friends, these facebookers are something like dinner party bores, but there are sometimes worse things to be than a bore.

It also seems to me that, despite the best efforts of its corporate designers, the very format of facebook can sometimes spur interesting discussions of ideas. When Skyler recently updated her facebook profile, she was confronted with a series of silly enquiries about her tastes in food and her favourite colours, along with a couple of questions about her political and religious convictions. A lot of facebookers choose to ignore these more serious questions, or else fob them off with non-sequitirs, but others seem to suffer a dark night of the soul, as they struggle to define their most important beliefs. Certainly, Skyler spent a lot of time mulling her political self-portrait, before settling on the phrase 'slightly left of the centre-leftists - "Democratic Eco-Socialist"!!?'

When I mocked the equivocating question mark at the end of her political self-description, Skyler hit back by demanding that I find a snappy label for my attitude to religion. 'You might know what you think about a thousand different varieties of the far left', she said, 'but you shy away from explaining how you feel about religion. I reckon you're scared to join facebook.'

Skyler's comment had some justification. Facebook seems to demand that its users define their view of religion in relatively simple, effectively binary terms. Most facebookers who answer the question on religion seem to pronounce themselves believers of one creed or another, or else simply as 'atheists'. It is as though the parameters for self-definition have been set by the noisy debates which have occurred in recent times between religious fundamentalists on the one hand and the so-called 'New Atheists' led by Richard Dawkins on the other.

After a fair bit of debate with myself, and of course with Skyler, I decided that if I ever join facebook I will describe myself there as a 'non-humanist atheist'. Of course, this rather tortured phrase invites far more questions that it answers. I'm not trying be evasively delphic, by coining such a strange term: on the contrary, I'm trying to be precise, by acknowledging both my lifelong complete lack of belief in a supernatural reality and my complete disdain for 'New Atheists' like Christopher Hitchens who want to see the universe, with all its mystery and wonder, through a prism made out of the dogmas of twenty-first century Western capitalist society.

In the hope of making myself clearer, I'll quote a passage from a letter I recently sent to a very good friend who saw and critiqued a couple of posts I made on the poetry of Christianity near the end of last year. My letter was an attempt to explain to my friend, who is a Christian and who reveres the art of Colin McCahon, why I reject the framework in which recent high-profile debates between believers and atheists have occurred.

'I am atheist but not a humanist. I reject the humanist ideas that the history of our species has some sort of intrinsic goal or meaning, that human beings exist at the top of some sort of hierarchy of nature, and that individual humans can be analysed in isolation from their fellows and from the history and the physical environment that contain them. To quote Louis Althusser, I think human beings are 'constituted from outside'.

I think it is significant that Christianity and other religious traditions have the ability to pull us out of the here and now, and to make us see our lives and concerns within the context not only of a vast sweep of human history but of the concepts of 'eternity' and 'nothingness'. In the hyper-paced, facile, attention-deficient society in which we live, the sort of transcendent power which Colin McCahon found in certain Christian thinkers and artists, and which you find in your own way today, is both subversive and healthy.

But mainstream Christianity seems, to me at least, to have very little interest in the sort of transcendent anti-materialism that attracted McCahon. For the vast majority of its practitioners, Christianity seems to act as a sensible insurance scheme for the afterlife, or a social club, or a means of building self-esteem, or a political cause. Recently I overheard a group of earnest young Catholics discussing an important theological question. When they died, they wondered, would they get to have their pets with them in heaven? So much for Pope Benedict's negative theology-influenced speculations about heaven as a place where time and the self are obliterated!

The media is in the habit of talking about a 'New Atheism', and about a struggle between 'believers and unbelievers', but this sort of rhetoric serves to disguise the fact that some of the most vociferous defenders of the Christianity and some of the loudest detractors of the faith share an utterly anthropocentric, instrumentalist worldview. The loathsome 'New Atheist' Christopher Hitchens, who wants to get rid of God and any concept of morality so that he can justify doing whatever he likes and helping start whatever wars he wants, has far more than he realises in common with somebody like Billy Graham, who thinks that heaven is a place where all-American kids drive cadillacs over streets paved with gold, or Brian Tamaki, who regards Christ as the prototypical businessman.

On the other hand, some of the more sensitive New Atheists - Richard Dawkins, for example, who feels a sense of transcendence when he studies the world scientifically, and who responds to Bach in a way a philistine like Graham or Tamaki never could - perhaps have more in common with 'transcendental' Christians like yourself than is generally appreciated. I don't mean to sound like I'm picking on Christians. The state of Christianity in our society, and in the West in general, reflects not some problem peculiar to the creed but a wider social pattern. Free market capitalism and alienating technology have had a similar effect on many other movements and institutions, both religious and non-religious. A look at some other religious traditions - the absurd New Age cults which pretend to recycle ancient wisdom but actually cater to the psychic needs of neurotic twenty-first century consumers, for instance - shows that Christianity's problems are far from unique. And how about the 'liberated' non-religious humans Hitchens celebrates, who 'worship' on Sunday mornings by visiting the mall and buying clothes or cellphones, rather than by going to church? Are they really any more liberated than Brian Tamaki's benighted followers?

I do want to suggest though - and I did make this point in my posts - that the inevitable contemporary problems of Christianity are exacerbated by key parts of the religion's doctrine. Some of the supernatural tenets of the faith - the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of eternal life to the pious, the claim that prayers can be answered - encourage its misuse. Prayer, for instance, becomes in our crass, instrumentalising society not the profound sort of dialogue with nothingness practiced by Karl Barth or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, but the equivalent of purchasing a lotto ticket, or requesting a pay rise from the manager.

I respect the transcendental aspects of the Christian tradition - the faith's ability to pull humans out of the here and now and to put them in touch with the mysteries of existence, with the vastness of history, with the otherness of death and nothing, and with the beauty and wonder of the world - but reject the religion's supernatural claims. It's not simply that I don't see evidence for the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on - I regard the very concept of an omnipotent God and the very promise of eternal life as contrary to the parts of the Christian tradition I admire. I am for Pseudo-Dionysus rather than St Paul. And I think McCahon shared my general position. He embraced some of the transcendentalism and symbolism of Christianity (aka Catholicism), but (as far as I am aware) refused to commit to its supernaturalism.

In his early twenties the philosopher Martin Heidegger distressed his family, who were pious and conservative Catholics, by telling them he was no longer a Christian. When he was asked by a family member why he had abandoned the 'sacred mystery' of Catholicism, Heidegger replied 'I have abandoned Christianity because I believe in mystery and in questioning. Church doctrine puts an end to mystery by giving the essential questions metaphysical answers'. I tend to agree.'

I hope that readers will use the comments box under this post to add their own opinions to mine. If we get a good debate going, somebody might even link to it from their facebook page!

50 Comments:

Blogger Edward said...

lol. My cereal is tasty today.

9:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds like you are rejecting the Enlightenment.

Antihumanism is a term applied to a number of thinkers opposed to the project of philosophical anthropology. Central to antihumanism are the notions that talk of human nature or of "man" or "humanity" in the abstract should be rejected as historically relative, or as metaphysical, as well as the rejection of the view of humans as autonomous subjects...

In the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century, the philosophy of humanism was a cornerstone of the Enlightenment. Because it was believed there was a universal moral core to humanity, it followed that all persons could be said to be inherently free and equal. For liberal humanists such as Rousseau or Kant, the universal law of reason guided the way towards total emancipation from any kind of tyranny.

Such ideas did not go unchallenged. The young Karl Marx criticised the project of political emancipation (embodied in the form of human rights), asserting it to be symptomatic of the very dehumanisation it is supposed to oppose. Marx argued that because, under capitalism, egoistic individuals are constantly in conflict with one another, rights are needed to protect them from each other. True emancipation can only come through the establishment of communism, which abolishes all private property. While the mature Marx may have retained a belief in the inevitability of progress, he also became more forceful in his criticism of the concept of human rights as idealist or utopian. For the mature Marx, "humanity" is an unreal abstraction: because rights themselves are abstract, the justice and equality they protect is also abstract, permitting extreme inequalities in reality.'

10:07 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS that was a quote from the wikipedia entry on philosophical anti-humanism...agree with it?

10:08 am  
Anonymous give me forty of legions of demons NOW! said...

Test your impurity - find out which level of Dante's hell you will find yourself on in the afterlife! I took the test and found myself on the utmost level - woohah!

http://www.4degreez.com/misc/dante-inferno-test.mv

10:25 am  
Blogger Edward said...

"Over the past couple of years I have watched a series of apparently sane members of my social circle retract their denunciations of facebook, create profiles, and begin the primitive accumulation of friends. They stop contributing to blogs like Reading the Maps, where at least a modicum of an argument is expected in the comments boxes, and begin to post almost sublimely anodyne reports on the flux and flow of their minds - 'I'm bored' and 'I need coffee' seem to be refrains - to their facebook 'friends', who are only too happy to respond in kind."

I found this passage both immensely funny and fitting. As one of those who have succumbed to the virus of facebook it does seem more often than not it is a strange place filled with sound bites and inane discussion of one's drinking activities the night before. Though I think there are examples of where it does good as well. The recent mining protest was organised, in part, through forest and bird's facebook for example.

But the point you raise about struggling to fill in the boxes such as 'political views' and 'religious views' with a phrase or two is an interesting one. And I think you're partly right to identify the recent struggles between fundamentalists and the so-called "New Atheists" as limiting or polarising such self identifiers. Just the other day I was talking with my partner about the rather bizarre way in which some people who do not hold belief in the supernatural have been debating of late. In one instance I've even heard one 'New Atheist' follower label themselves a 'fundamentalist atheist', which I found to be something of an oxymoron, or at least it's speaker to be moronic.

However I would tend to disagree with the idea that humanism in its modern sense, apart from some general focus on human beings rather than deities, involves humanity having a goal or meaning and being at the top of some hierarchy divorced from environment. For me, humanism, or what I prefer to call secular humanism, is more to do with a focus on humans as unique, rational animals, and upon focusing on respecting people and striving for humanitarian causes. Rather than hierarchies or intrinsic goals, a humanistic perspective is more to do with humanity's potential for good in spite of its ability for wrong. Rather than divorced from nature, I think humanism is informed by the human ability to change it's built environment, indeed, that humanity and the changes and progress (socially and technologically) it undergoes are a part of what is natural rather than some invasive force into an idealised concept. It is, in other words, at least to me, a philosophical perspective which focuses upon the positive aspects of humanity within the larger framework of the natural world. It is anthropocentric to a degree, but, as humans we cannot divorce ourselves of human concerns or concerns for humans. As with all species we have a propensity to be speciest.

10:37 am  
Blogger Edward said...

cont...

I have too little time to offer any opinion on the other aspects of your post, suffice to say that I agree, for the main part, with your take on matters. I would say though, that there is a fine balance between the benefits of anti-materialism and an utter rejection of the reality that materials are part of human nature. As stated earlier, the ability and propensity of built environment is part of being human, and our evolution is intimately entwined with the development of tools and other materialistic behaviours. I think there is a modern trend of thought which takes anti-materialism too far in the pursuit of a return to ideal nature, or some individualised sense of self, when in reality it denies nature itself through idealised pursuits.

Anyway, much food for thought. Thanks for another great post Maps.

p.s. re: the interesting anon comment. I know it is a quote, but I thought we were past the 'one cannot talk of or define 'humanity''? - anthropologists, psychologists and biologists have been doing so for years, or at least parts thereof.

10:38 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:31 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

For me acknowledging the mystery and wonder in life is a vital part of how I look at the world. I think it's important to not be too cynical.
And I am definitely against materialist religions (esp. evangelical forms of Christianity like Brian Tamaki espouses) and US style capitalism.
I do agree with Edward's view of Humanism though that it's "more to do with a focus on humans as unique, rational animals, and upon focusing on respecting people and striving for humanitarian causes."
By the way Maps, what do you think the beliefs of a "Democratic Eco-Socialist" are?!
Also, what do you make of my facebook religious views - "Open Agnostic"?!
I think all the inane comments and silly things like "Farmville" are stupid on facebook BUT I do think it's good for organising events and connecting with a wide group of people. I mainly use facebook to share photos with people who are overseas and to organise events (and I use the comments box to link to your blog posts!).

11:33 am  
Anonymous give me forty legions of demons NOW! said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:45 am  
Anonymous give me forty legions of demons NOW! said...

Hey Edward, if you want a religion that is not afraid of science and philosophy check out theistic Satanism!

Start with this site...

http://theisticsatanism.com/

"During the last several decades of the 20th century, most public Satanists were only symbolic Satanists. That is, they did not literally believe in or worship Satan. Instead, they regarded Satan as only a symbol of various desirable qualities such as independence, individuality, and strength. Many were atheists.

A theistic Satanist, also known as a "traditional Satanist," "spiritual Satanist," or "Devil Worshiper," is one who does believe in and worship Satan as a deity, or who at least is strongly inclined in that direction. When this website first went online in fall 2002 C.E, we theistic Satanists were still a despised minority within the public Satanist scene. But we have grown rapidly and now seem to be the majority -- at least in online forums, though we still have some catching up to do in terms of real-world organization and in terms of being noticed by scholars of new religions.

If we don't believe Christian theology -- and indeed the vast majority of us don't -- then we need some other explanation. When looking at other possible explanations, how do we decide which one is correct?

On the other hand, for the minority of us who do accept what is essentially a Christian worldview, with only minor modifications besides the choice as to which side we're on, what is our basis for accepting Christian-based theology in the first place, and on what basis do we make our modifications?

In either case, whether our theology is Christian-based or not, how do we decide what to believe? What are the appropriate roles of reason (our own thinking), science, and whatever we may have experienced that we regard as revelation from Satan? (And how do we recognize a genuine revelation?)

If you look to the Prince of Darkness or to Demons for guidance, this doesn't mean you are crazy. In fact, you are in good company. No less a person than Socrates, one of the very founders of Western philosophy, was said by Plato to have been guided by a Daimon. (In those days, a Daimon was simply a spirit intermediate in power between gods and humans. They were not thought of as "evil" spirits until later.)"

12:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Litterick has a new post on a similar subject:
http://fundypost.blogspot.com/2010/05/men-who-write-too-much.html

1:05 pm  
Blogger dave said...

Doesnt seem to me that fb or twitter are in themselves to be avoided as infra dig. After all blogs can be drivel too. Its all about discrimination. The good thing about the internet it its speed and breadth a bit like the cosmos. Why piddle in a puddle when you can spray 360 degrees targets of choice? If our choice facility if fucked that capitalism for you. And it would be a good discipline for poets to learn how to twitter.
Rupert is shitting his cords because he is not Google or fb.
And media are not the message. What has any of this got to do with the age old clunkers life, meaning, my next beer? I'm can't wait for the teleporter and I don't mean the undertaker.

1:13 pm  
Anonymous herb (ex-SAL) said...

'who 'worship' on Sunday mornings by visiting the mall and buying clothes or cellphones, rather than by going to church? Are they really any more liberated than Brian Tamaki's benighted followers?'

SNOB ALERT!
WHY DO YOU HATE THE WORKING CLASS?
THE WORKING CLASS LOVES MALLS.
MALLS ARE REVOLUTIONARY.
NATIONALISE THEM!
WANT TO GO BACK TO LIVING IN CAVES?
GEDDIT?
CAPS USED FOR ADDED EFFECT!!

1:41 pm  
Anonymous herb (ex-sal) said...

revolutionary communist party explains why the death of a language is a good thing.........
http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/8053/
lower caps for effect.......

herb

1:45 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

Lots of points to think about in this post, Maps.

In terms of the rise of facebook at the expense of blogger, I can only say (speaking purely from my own experience) that while the former does indeed lend itself greatly to banality it does have the great merit of being at least a lot more conducive to engaging in dialogue than blogger, where the most well-thought out posts often attract zero comments.

As for the point you raise about non-humanist atheism, do you think a better term might be 'anti-rationalist atheism'?

I ask this because it seems to me that the most obvious 'third camp' position between the contending armies of the latter-day heirs of St Paul and of the Enlightenment philosophes is offered by the German Romantics, for whom the poetic imagination and its emphasis on analogy (rather than credos of the scriptural or rationalist variety) seemed to offer the only path to true (albeit inevitably only partial) knowledge. Octavio Paz's essay 'Children of the Mire' is well worth reading for a more in-depth explanation of this argument...

1:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'If you look to the Prince of Darkness or to Demons for guidance, this doesn't mean you are crazy.'

Yes it does.
What a fucking idiot.

2:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does herb think that the death of a language is progressive?

And the spiked website has
nothing to do with the Revolutionary Communist Party, except that the libertarians who run it used to run the RCP.

4:35 pm  
Anonymous NN said...

I waver between the sweetheart Keirkegaard and the fellow called Sartre. But not Heidiggar...

6:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't Satanism just another form of Christianity in the final analysis...after all you have to believe in God, in Jesus, the stories of the Bible...don't you?

and don't you/the Devil also have to LOSE in the end?

9:52 pm  
Anonymous give me forty legions of demons NOW! said...

So what anonymous. Christian-Platonists always try to interpret the Bible to make out that Satan will lose. But the Prince of Darkness represents the forces of CHANCE and DYNAMISM. His supporters deny Christian 'destiny'.

So. More from the theistic Satanism website - INVOCATION TO SATAN.

TRY IT OUT and see if it WORKS for you. It has been WORKING for me for six months.

AVE SATANA!

Hail, Satan,
Lord of Darkness,
King of Hell,
Ruler of the Earth,
God of this World!

God Who invites us to become as gods!
Muse of our civilization,
Dread Enemy of its tyrant god!
Satan, mighty Liberator,
Bearer of true Light!

God of our flesh,
God of our minds,
God of our innermost Will!

O mighty Lord Satan,
teach us to become strong and wise!
Teach us to vanquish the enemies
of our freedom and well-being!

REGE SATANA!
http://theisticsatanism.com/invocation.html

10:11 pm  
Anonymous give me forty legions of demons NOW! said...

(continued from the same website theistic satanism)

If you've only recently left Christianity (or whatever else in your background might be your most suitable target for s blasphemy rite), and if you feel deeply drawn to Satan but have not yet spent much time examining the arguments both for and against your former belief system, then you should probably do the self-initiation rite first and wait until quite a bit later to do a rite of irrevocable blasphemy such as the renunciation rite.

I strongly recommend that the self-initiation rite be performed in the nude. (For most other rituals, I recommend ritual garb, though nudity is OK for other rituals too.) Nakedness symbolizes the shedding of all artificiality and superficiality, opening your innermost self to Satan.

The ritual should be performed on three nights in a row.


Prepare for the ritual as instructed in my article on Preparations for formal ritual.

The room should be lit by a single black candle on your altar. (You may also have a small flashlight handy if you need it to read your crib sheet.)


Standing upright, naked, perform your preferred beginning-of-ritual markers. (See Banishing rituals, grounding, and other beginning/end-of-ritual markers.) Then face your altar. You should be facing west.


Say the Greetings to the Princes and the Legions. These are said facing west, then south, then east, then north, then west again. Use the version emphasizing the element of Water (West).


And now for the most important part of this ritual: Facing west, say the Prayer of acknowledgment of Satan's rulership three times.

Pray to Satan for guidance. For example, you may wish to ask Satan for guidance in learning about magick, or in finding ways to meet other theistic Satanists. You may also ask Satan for guidance in mundane matters, as well as in matters pertaining to your development as a Satanist.

You may use my standard recommended ritual closing. (The second thanks to Satan should read, "I thank You for drawing me to You!") For the thanks to the Legions, use the version emphasizing the element of Water (West).

10:24 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

I applaud your courage, Maps. Never before I have seen someone on two hidings to nothing at the same time. Dissing both Facebook and religion is asking for trouble.

For my part, I joined the Facebook because otherwise I would know nothing of my friends' movements.

I like your reasons for opposition to Humanism: I have usually found Humanists to be both ahistorical and panglossian. For my part, I simply say I have no religion

11:08 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I share your position to quite an extent.

I like to be in a state of not knowing.

The questions of mystery and the impossibility of absolute knowledge perhaps what is behind a lot of m poetry - now also I feel is here ideas say of Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre (somewhat) and Spinoza.

But for me our exsistence is beautiful and exciting and terrifying (Rilke's "Jeder Engel es Shrecklick... (every angel is terrible) means something much more, far more than anything about Christian angels...I see Dawkins as deeply religious, most Christian and even Moslems and other as not religious in the deep sense at all (many are, Dawkins is right to be excited about the phenomenal world, or to him the "material" domain...but it is not that deep world he is seeing (well he is but no one completely sees it -we simply "see" it in different ways) - the way spiders make webs, how the eye evolved, it is also the structures 'beneath' (an the structures of these structures' - their "whatness", and the power of the mind - the msytery of consciousness. Einstein also was accused by Niels Bohr of always "telling God what to think", "God doesn't play dice" Einstein mused (a bit hopefully) when he was debating the Big Bang ideas - he initially opposed that idea very strongly - he wanted like Hoyle (his story "the back Cloud" is good - when knowledge is gained of the Absolute -it causes destruction of those who gain that knowledge)- Einstein wanted an eternal steady state universe).

Through Art and a certain experiences we see glimpses of this "eternity that possessed such as Rilke. Jacob Bronwoski of "Ths Ascent of Man" [ yes - the title is dated - but it is a great book based on his excellent TV series on science philosophy and much else - he was a scientist interested in Blake for example] in a sense deeply "religious ... as is McCahon. We see te Kooti also as one. Even Smithyman at times. Derrida et al in a strange way...and even the objectivists (Logical Positivists perhaps) and empiricists ran into "illogic logic" as did Wittgenstein and with him Russell and Whitehead (also Godel) and many others...

We are on one level simply complex animals with no special status or guarantees - but we are also deeply thinking and feeling beings. This (The Idea) is what drove Marx, ot Neitsczhe, or Pound or Yeats or Bach or Leoanardo or whoever... and others on their vast struggles...right or wrong.

Any absolute "answer" will always be followed by a question.

11:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The chatter on Face Book and elsewhere on the net serves a vital social, human, need in us all. Even the (seemingly) simple act of talking - sometimes what one might call trivia - is a testament to the mystery of being human. We have a need to be social.

11:34 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

I have to agree with Richard there. And with Skyler upthread. Whilst I do think both Twitter and Facebook could and ought to be critiqued, it's not for the inane chatter, nor for the time they take away from other, loftier activities. It's for the space of hyperconnected social privilege they create, to the extent that this privilege goes unexamined - which it most often does.

12:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Giovanni -thanks - sorry BTW about raving onto you in the 911 debate! I don't what I was doing there...lol...I seemed to have gone AWOL for a bit. It's the Iternet Effect I'm told...

But I feel Face Book -like all tech. has its down and up sides.

I mean I recall the advent of TV (we didn't get one - I only got one in 1967) - remember I grew up when there were only three radio stations, no computers, or television, and in fact we rarely used telephone. My sister had -later - a gramophone and I used to go to my friend's and marvel at his record player...there were ones that actually played more than one record!! Incredible!

But we didn't even have calculators - as tech. for a road company I used a circular slide rule. Later I did an engineering course and those who could use programmable calculators were gods...

Computers were huge boring things that didn't work very well and needed people to do boring work feeding in punch cards...

Later on we heard about Programmers - they were The Gods! You had to do a special test to get into that field...

Then what are now called cell phones started as "car phones" - I used to service them at one stage about 1988 (often the aerials were broken - remember they were large things...or the batteries packed up, or the frequencies drifted...

People of my age will have similar experiences - the computer revolution took us all by surprise [but everyone was saying "Computers are the future"..like a mantra it was - others would have nothing to do with them]...it is ongoing.

But humans are still the same. We have the same "spiritual" and social needs.

I limit my time on Face Book (a lot for me is irrelevant but I've enjoyed connecting with my family and friends and certain groups) and pick out things that interest me. I try to keep TV off (for my sins, I really enjoy Dr Phill!!) and read a lot - I enjoy YouTube.

The Internet is a curse and huge blessing as is Face Book... technology - look at the way Blogs can be used (and we all have different ideas of what is useful time) - I don't think FB detracts from blogs per se...

It is good we are still asking "spiritual" questions. Maybe there are no answers but it is good to ask... and remember that we all feel deep loneliness in many ways. Jack Ross's book EMO delves into some of these (emotional, phenomenological, "spiritual"?, language-lit-theory) issues (although that may not be its main purpose - he is also perhaps a satirist and social critic also,as well as a 1001 Nights, and an Ovid of the Metamorphoses man, and a dedicated Sci Fi man!).

But basically we just like to connect up with each other. Not all communication has to be "deep" ... we need the "small talk". We need to communicate.

3:43 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"It sounds like you are rejecting the Enlightenment."

I think it is rejection, because these periods of enlightenment and so on, oscillate more or less, with say "Romanticism" and other stages or eras. Or they integrate in a kind of complex dialectic.

You cant reject The Enlightenment (not that there is only ONE age of it) anymore than you can reject oxygen. But nor can one reject the Dionysian, or perhaps the various gradations and undulations of "postmodernism" or other "isms." Romanticism needs Classicism and Symbolism follows maybe Realism (or was it Parnassianism in France?) - but none of these movements are isolation as Newton's theories are still needed to understand Einstein's, or perhaps Hegel's for Marx's, and so on ...

3:54 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"In one instance I've even heard one 'New Atheist' follower label themselves a 'fundamentalist atheist', which I found to be something of an oxymoron, or at least it's speaker to be moronic. "

No! High Atheism has become a fundamentalist and dangerous religion. Beware Edward thou art on thin philosophic ice here! GO back and rewrite this! Fundamentalist Belle Dame Science hast thee in it's Thrall! Beware!

3:59 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Erratum.

"I think it is rejection, because these periods of enlightenment and so on, oscillate..."

That should be: "I don't think it is rejection, ..."

5:03 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

"No! High Atheism has become a fundamentalist and dangerous religion. Beware Edward thou art on thin philosophic ice here! GO back and rewrite this! Fundamentalist Belle Dame Science hast thee in it's Thrall! Beware!"

Hmmm, i'm not sure 'atheism' can be a religion though Richard. I don't understand how absence of something can be confused with a cohesive group of moral principals and rituals, usually to worship a deity or some such. Claiming atheism as a religion seems as absurd as claiming agnosticism as a religion, merely because some agnostics have things in common. Afterall we are all of us atheists of some god or another - you shouldn't take such a eurocentric view of matters Richard. And I don't think it is wise to confuse atheism with science. It is a philosophical worldview, rather than a method of understanding or encountering the material world.

I think 'fundamentalist atheist' is a silly term, as all it says is that you have an unchanging and unchangable opinion about the absence of something. In the context in which this person I mentioned was using it though, they were aligning it with science. The notion of a fundamentalist scientist is simply an unscientific notion, as the entire point of science is that it changes and adapts to evidence. The man who was spouting off about being a 'fundamentalist atheist' was, in a way, arguing for scientism but from a position where he obviously knew sweet F.A. about science or philosophy. My concern is that there are a growing group of such individuals out there who are in fact almost as uniformed as those they rail against.

My point is it isn't science or atheism that's at fault - these are just tools and opinions - it is the age old misology and misanthropy rearing its head in disguise. And, by the way, 'fundamentalist science' does not have me in it's thrall, and nor am I an athiest. I have an empiricist philosophy of the world, but this is limited to that which can be measured (i.e. the physical), rather than assuming science can explain the feeling of emotion, for example. And I count myself an agnostic, as I think it impossible to 'know' the presence or absence of gods, but rather that I have seen no proof and think it unlikely that I will, making me a default atheist. Also, I find the idea of worrying about gods existing or not an absurd waste of time considering there are immediate needs here in reality, hence why I characterise myself as a humanist.
Perhaps you should hold your prejudices closer to your heart before dictating people's personal philosophies?

8:43 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I pinched the term 'anti-humanist' from Althusser, who used it in a deliberately provocative way. Althusser outraged people like EP Thompson, who had called himself a 'socialist humanist' to distinguish his politics from the Stalinism of the Soviet Union and its satellite parties in the West. Thompson thought Althusser was justifying Stalinism by attacking humanism.

But Althusser was actually talking about 'philosophical humanism', which he understood as the tendency to place humans at the centre of the universe, to assume that human history has some inherent meaning goal, to place humans at the top of a hierarchy of species, and to assume that individual humans are rational creatures who determine their own individual destinies.

Althusser actually argued that Stalinism was, amongst other things, a type of humanism. Stalinist rhetoric often presented history as the story of humanity's triumphal progress through successive 'stages' of development - feudalism, capitalism, socialism - towards a utopia. This utopia would, of course, be realised in the Soviet Union, under aegis of comrade Stalin. All of the sufferings which Stalin inflicted upon his subjects could be justified as means to a glorious, utopian end.

Some people might feel it is demoralising to be told that human history has no inherent meaning, and is not heading in some inevitable direction. The argument that human individuals are not rational actors, and cannot be analysed in isolation from one another, and from the history and environment that shaped them, might also seem bleak. Doesn't it it rob us of our agency?

I think it can sometimes actually be liberating to be freed from the illusion that we control events. I was recently talking to someone who counsels cancer patients, and she told me that a good part of her job involves persuading these patients that they are not responsible for their plight, and that their recovery from cancer does not depend upon their mental attitude toward their illness.

Many cancer sufferers in the West have been affected by the New Age nonsense of the 'self-help' and 'positive thinking' movements, which are supposed to empower humans by making them responsible for their fate, but actually induce anxiety and guilt. It is liberating for cancer sufferers to learn that their fate is not something they can completely, or even mostly, control. I think analogies can be made to other areas of life.

9:54 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Althusser killed his wife

10:43 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps -it has been shown that those who have positive (and perhaps a practical) outlook when ill actually or can recover more quickly. This is science and also commonsense. The New Age thing takes all this too far and assumes that all illnesses can be controlled by the mind or some kind of magic or ancient herbs.

What can be done is that a person can for example -

1) reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption - that is one of the major contributors to ALL cancers.

(And many diseases)

2) reduce or eliminate smoking

3) keep one's weight to the required BMI

4) exercise as frequently as is possible

5) keep warm! this is a major factor in avoiding colds apart from keeping clear of "coughers" etc)!

6) Vitamins are helpful

7) certainly - overall a positive outlook keep illness at bay -it is known that people are more susceptible to various illnesses when depressed.

8) laugh more!

8) despite all the above, statistics mean that people who do all these things and more can still get cancer - as the mechanisms causing cancer (or some diseases) are frequently simply random mutations in DNA etc
that say "switch "on" (or off) the genomes that control growth

The Noble Prize winning German-British scientist Bodmer wrote a great book on cell biology & genetics and new techniques. in that and so on. I there much of that information is available. I read it some time ago.

"The Book of Man. the Quest to Discover Our Genetic Heritage."
by Bodmer, Walter & McKie, Robin.

All that aside, no one is responsible for cancer - as we are talking about statistical probabilities, and their is the age old case of the Uncle who smoke for years, was massively over weight, drunk everyday, never ate any fruit, and lived for 300 years.

The above regimen only increases one's chances.

Life's a bastard it all boils down to! Montaigne writes well on death in his Essays. he claims to have thought about it all time!

And there is probably no God out there as we conceive it, no heaven as such. The existentialists et al found a "belief" in the Now. The mind is can be empowering in its ability to endure and control negative thoughts (there is always some normal anxiousness or angst and even "darkness" but that is a part of the buzz of Being and that shows that we are all a part of nature and cant control say our ultimate fates, as I feel your were saying in relation to Humanism - as in its philosophic definition (Humanism was a great impulse in the Renaissance but perhaps "went too far" in totally centering human destiny) as these can drastically reduce creativity, enjoyment of life, how one is as father or lover or whatever; and so on...thus SOME of the New Age Ideas are good. But they tend to give into mumbo jumbo and advocate being vegetarians or taking drugs or whatever...and they talk in abstractions about the 'spiritual' or the 'soul' where there is no definition of those terms. (Not that these terms do not reflect any truths at all but they are overused.)

The question is what works to the individual. I have found Dr Wayne Dyer's "your Erroneous Zones" a great help. My sister finds that Christianity helps her through the cancer ordeal she is facing right now... she is now on chemotherapy.

Wyatan Curnow wrote his "Cancer Day Book" (Which I took to my older sister when she also had bowel cancer and was on chemotherapy and she found that book very helpful.)

I feel that Catholicism has its points for people - but I recall that when a friend's father was dying of cancer - he was terrified that he would go to hell - so that psychologically his death was quite terrible.

So we have the Hamlet dilemma - if death is not extinction - what dreams might come? What nightmares? Could life after death be even more horrible than life? Probably it is simply complete extinction and Nothingness - which in itself is also frightening - or can be.

So we keep busy!

1:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle; the number of whom is as the sand of the sea

2:05 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

Interesting discussion Maps. But I still feel you are somewhat missing earlier points. It isn't about destiny, meaning or hierarchy so much as it is about taking an interest in the development of humanity and holding true that humanity is worth something. And despite Althusser's opinion that humanity is some sort of snake eating its own tail, progress does happen. It isn't supernatural, but nature. Just as culture and change is natural to humanity.
It is interesting for me to hear the opposing viewpoint though.

4:08 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Edward

You must be still under thirty!
Such charming and near childlike hope!! Don't say the P word!


Humanity? Future? Significant? Progress? (Ooops! the P word!!!!

The microbes and cockroaches are doing a better job.

War war war ..etc etc ... more war...atrocities....pollution...war...holocaust...more holocausts....we have destroyed most of our nature...NZ s being a were.. oil pours into the sea...ride the bomb!... there are too many of us... we are no more privileged than anyone or anything else - we are just a pathetic aberration of cruel nature...and infinite and pathetic jest...we just cant stop making better and better ways to destroy...bigger and bigger bombs... war continues..nothing happens ...misery continues... science and philosophy and politics ...all of it is a resounding fart in the leering face of the vast indifferent sneering cosmos....

Lets get real.

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace...life's a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

8:01 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Edward, you wrote:

'[humanism] is about taking an interest in the development of humanity and holding true that humanity is worth something...progress does happen'

I don't disagree with this notion of humanism - I think it would be hard to find a large number of people who did - but I think that the sense in which Althusser is using the concept is different, and I think he is digging deeper with his concept.

We might consider the notion of 'progress', which you invoke, in the light of Althusser's critique of humanism. We tend to take it for granted that 'progress' is meaningful and useful word. Right-wingers and left-wingers debate issues like, say, the merits of tax cuts for the rich, disagreeing about whether such measures will lead to 'progress', but they seldom consider the meaning of 'progress'.

When we do turn a spotlight on this apparently unproblematic concept, though, we find it hides certain assumptions. For instance, it tends to hide the assumption that the progress of humanity is essentially connected with the progress of the non-human inhabitants of the planet.

But is this necessarily so? Could it not be argued that, from the perspective of many species - the whale, for instance - the destruction of humanity would equal progress? I don't mean to endorse such an extreme argument, of course - I just mention it because it illuminates a level of consensus we sometimes forget exists. Arguably, this consensus rests partly in a common acceptance of what Althusser calls 'humanism'.

12:05 am  
Blogger maps said...

I think the ongoing debate about mining in schedule four areas brings out some of the covert assumptions common across the political spectrum and rooted in what Althusser calls 'humanism'.

On the one hand we have National telling us that we need to tear up DOC land to grow the economy, make us all better off, and provide a larger base for the welfare state (whether National's argument is sincerely meant is beside the point in this context).

On the other hand we have the Greens arguing that mining on schedule four land is bad news because it will endanger the 'green' brand some Kiwi exporters rely on, and because it will deter tourists from coming here. The Nats and the Greens disagree on whether mining should go ahead, but they share a whole set of underlying assumptions. Both treat the actual places and creatures threatened by mining in an instrumental manner, as though they exist merely to help humans and the economy humans rely upon.

Bodies like Forest and Bird have advanced less economistic arguments against mining, but at least some of their arguments remain subtly 'humanist'. They argue, for instance, in favour of the pleasure that areas threatened with mining can give to humans who visit to hike or engage in other leisure activities. This argument is hardly offensive, but does it really get to the heart of what is dangerous about mining in places like Paparoa National Park?

Where do we look for an alternative to the varieties of anthropocentrism I have described? One place to look might be to the radical fringe of the environmental movement, where anarcho-primitivists lurk. With their insistence that trees and birds should be protected for their own sake, without any reference to human activities and interests, the primitivists certainly seem very radical. It can be argued, though, that the divide between humanity and nature which is such a feature of their thinking actually replicates the estrangement of humanity from nature which is a feature of the ideology of the rabidly pro-capitalist right. All the deep ecologists have done is inverted the interpretation of that estrangement. Sarah Palin sees nature as a gigantic shooting range, and gets her supporters to chant 'drill baby drill!' at rallies, because she does not believe that the natural world is anything more than a bunch of stuff God gave us to use as we see fit. The primitivists assume that this is the only way post-palaeolithic humans can think about nature, and they therefore seek to keep such humans as far away from nature as they can, or better still return humans to a pre-neolithic era.

What is missing from both these views is a sense of the dialectical interaction between humanity and the rest of nature. Humans are not the same as dogs or snails, as primitivists would have us believe. Nor, though, are we little Gods who can treat nature with contempt, as the likes of Palin argue. I think that Althusser's critique of humanism actually allows us to see this point, and formulate positions on environmental issues which avoid false extremes.

Marx said that in humanity nature becomes conscious of itself. We are both inextricably part of and dependant upon nature, and different from almost every other natural phenomena. Heidegger, whose famous 'Letter on Humanism' was the source of Althusser's anti-humanist arguments, argued that human consciousness was not really the discrete world-in-itself that Descartes and so many later philosophers imagined; instead, it was a 'clearing', in which other beings and phenomena manifested themselves.

12:36 am  
Blogger maps said...

I find the writings of the late Geoff Park, who was a ferocious critic of both environmental depredations by New Zealand governments and the misanthropic cult of 'virgin nature' which informed the mainstream New Zealand environmental movement for half a century, to be full of clues about what a in dialectical attitude to nature might look like in practice. Park, who published two lengthy books during his truncated life, favoured junking notions of a non-existent 'virgin nature' and instead using large, diverse ecosystems as units of analysis:
http://www.futurestrust.org.nz/content/view/17/51/

I'm aware that my last two posts were rather turgid, and that I still haven't replied to the fascinating comments made by several other chaps and chapesses here. Apologies! For the record, Tim, if you're still reading this thread, I don't think we should use the term 'anti-rational', as we should contest the stealing of rationality by advocates of scientism, and I'm not keen on many of the 'romantic' philosophers (you mean blokes like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer?) because I think they overdo the subjective thing in their desire to react against scientism and schematism. (I *really* can't stand Nietzsche, actually!)

12:49 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

Thanks for the reply Maps. And for the references for me to follow up. I do get what you are saying, as the main critique of humanism is it's inevitable anthropocentricism and speciest perspective. But I struggle to believe that one cannot hold a humanist perspective while also valuing or protecting the environment and other species for their own sake and within their own context. Call it biodiversity, conservation, or animal rights, it all comes down to respect of life. I consider myself a humanist, yet I reject the arguments against mining which involve economics or human values. Where does someone like me fit in to Althusser's arguments?
And I guess that is my point. I find (or rather think) some of these social theorists base their ideas on a sterile and ideal theoretical playing field. I find using the speciesism of humanism as a point of critique a rather moot and unhelpful point. And an assumption in and of itself insofar as there is something 'outside of nature' about it. As I mentioned earlier, all species are specist to a degree, simply because the individuals which make up the species belong to that group. An attempt to objectify this and quantify this as a form of genuine criticism seems, ultimately, to be a rather useless or impractical endeavor when considering that choices need to be made and priorities must be set in the immediate and consequential reality. Of course, as you rightly point out, this view can go too far sometimes to the detriment of other species, and I think it is right to criticise those instances of humanism.
Perhaps, in order to not disrupt the theorists' careful schema, identifying myself as a 'envirohumanist' might be more apt?
You are right though, the facebook 'one-word-characterisation' does raise more questions than it answers.


P.S. to Richard.
Call me a dreamer. In the words of another Lennon, i'm not the only one.

10:33 am  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Edward,

I can understand your feeling that philosophical talk about the nature of reality and human consciousness is a bit, well, useless.

But if philosophy can be defined as the asking of questions after the point where questioning normally ends, then philosophy is likely often to seem quixtoic. (And in that quixotic spirit, we might ask whether there isn't an uninterrogated assumption hidden in the belief that intellectual activity ought to be directed towards practical outcomes. Why do we all tend to jump so readily to this position? I ask this question of myself as much as anyone else...)

I do actually feel that a clarification of the relationship between human consciousness and the rest of reality can have some practical value for less elevated disciplines than philosophy.

As you know, many of the social sciences have been envious of the natural sciences - envious, particularly, of physics, with its laws, its detailed predictions, and its tidy experiments. There is a widespread belief, inside and outside the academy, that a discpline like physics gets at a more fundamental level of reality than, say, biology, let alone sociology.

It is certainly true that physics and other hard sciences are able to break reality into small pieces and to monitor the behaviour of these pieces in all sorts of instructive ways. But there is a danger, which I know you are well aware of, in worshipping the hard natural sciences, and trying to make their procedures into a model for other disciplines, and for practices outside the scholarly world.

The desire to treat human beings as measurable, predictable units of analysis - a desire which was common, as EP Thompson pointed out, to the 'development theorists' of the capitalist West as well as the Stalinist bureaucrats of the old planned economies of the East - had and continues to have very unfortunate consequences, because it is based on a basic misunderstanding of how humans function.

I think that an understanding of the relationship between human consciousness and nature can help to undermine the appeal of the natural sciences, because it can show that the bedrock of all human intellectual inquiry, from poetry to sociology to physics, is ordinary human experience, in which the non-human world manifests itself in the 'clearing' of our consciousness. Even the most elevated science begins from this point.

3:01 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Here's a quote from Heidegger which might (or might not!) make my point clearer:

'What happens when we look at a tree in bloom? Where does this presentation take place, when we stand before a tree in bloom? Does it by any chance take place in our heads? Of course; many things may take place in our brain when we stand on a meadow and have standing before us a blossoming tree in all its radiance and fragrance - when we perceive it.

In fact, we even have transforming and amplifying apparatus that can show the processes in our heads as brain currents, render them audible, and retrace their course in curves. We can - of course! Is there anything modern man cannot do?

But - to stay with our example - while science records the brain currents, what becomes of the tree in bloom? What becomes of the meadow? What becomes of the man - not of the brain but of the man? What becomes of the face-to-face, the meeting, the seeing?

It will be said in rebuttal: what is the use of such questions, since it is clear as day to all the world that we are standing on the earth and, in our example, face-to-face with a tree? But let us not slip too hastily into this admission, let us not accept and take this 'clear as day' too lightly. For we will forget everything we know, once the sciences explain to us that we see and accept is not properly a tree but in reality a void, thinly sprinkled with electric images here and there which race hither and yon at enormous speeds, and that our standing face-to-face with a tree is no mre than a pre-scientifically intended relation to something we still happen to call 'tree'. We are supposed to favour a supposedly superior physical and physiological knowledge, and to drop the blooming tree. But we should let the tree stand where it stands.'

3:01 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

Hi Maps, I tend to agree with pretty much all points in your last two comments, but it isn't philosophical pondering which I find unhelpful, it is philosophical statements which are either not tethered to reality or place human action in little boxes. I agree that there has been an obsession in the social sciences to try and mimic the natural sciences, but I think this is beside the point. And I don't think all intellectual thought need have practical outcomes, but a philosophical outlook which rejects treating humanity in the positive is ultimately useless to those who struggle now. Humanistic perspectives, both religious and secular, have been key drivers of humanitarian aid and development. I find Althusser's criticism of humanism on the grounds of its anthropocentricism rather petty or unhelpful in this light.

4:20 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'a philosophical outlook which rejects treating humanity in the positive'

True, but what about a philosophical viewpoint which treats what is positive in humanity as belong, in part at least, to things beyond humanity?

5:45 pm  
Blogger maps said...

oops - 'belong' should be belonging...

5:46 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

I'm sorry but you've lost me Maps, haha. Too many layers to this onion skin. I just hold humanism to be a positive viewpoint of humanity, a viewpoint which informs agents in a way in which they can work within society towards respect of other agents. It isn't the only viewpoint around, or one that necessarily cannot be married with other perspectives (animal rights activists who are also humanists?). The idea of what is good in humanity belonging to things outside of humanity just sounds like supernatural-derived morality to me, though that may be my own anthropocentricism talking ;) I suppose we could look at other social animals, or other animals in general, as sharing some positive aspects, or the other way around, and in fact I think most people who identify as some sort of humanist would be happy to.

I haven't read Althusser or many others of the anti-humanist bend, so I guess I am not as informed as I would like to be, but I get the feeling (correctly or otherwise) that their gripe against humanism comes from the historical context of the time and an over-exageration of the concept of habitus resultant in the loss of agency (and, one might argue on emotional grounds, empathy for their own species). Take the critique of 'progress'. Whales may indeed see humanity's destruction as progress, in the same way humanity views the elimination of cancer as progress. But what do such convoluted statements ultimately actually say? To me, such comparitive statements are so removed and almost form an infinite regression that they become meaningless. A 'so so story'.

If human beings shouldn't hold humanity as special or positive, but at the same time shouldn't strive for primitivism, what should individuals do? Do we accept a watered down form of social nihilism? Do we reject the notion that progress exists in favour of existential relativism? Do we strive to deny that, as humans, we hold humanity and other people higher in our priorities than many things? At such a stage of philosophical crossroads there comes a point where there are assumptions within assumptions which lead to more assumptions, all at the expense of real world situations which might benefit from a positive view of humanity within its wider context of nature.

7:53 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Actually I've been making a poor case for Althusser's relevance here. I've been leading Edward up the garden path with this philosophical talk, when I could have mentioned that Althusser had an impact on many social sciences, including anthropology, in a much more immediate and appreciable way, through the structuralist ways of modelling social organisation and change that he created using his interpretation of Marx.

Over the past fortnight, as a response to the debates on this blog about Polynesian history and ways of understanding pre-capitalist societies, I've been looking up the work of some of the French structuralist anthropologists - Godelier and Meillassoux and others - inspired by Althusser: it's pretty heady stuff, full of modes of production and circulation schemas and other almost impossibly intricate diagrams showing this and that. It might be better to look at that part of Althusser's legacy.

One commenter mentioned Althusser's slaying of his wife. I discuss this terrible episode and Althusser's last years in the following review, whch also explains why, despite the ultimate disintegration of his mind, Althusser influenced so many left-wing social scientists, including influential Kiwis like Dave Bedggood and John McCrae:
http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2006/06/return-of-althusser.html

12:00 pm  
Anonymous mike said...

"If human beings shouldn't hold humanity as special or positive, but at the same time shouldn't strive for primitivism, what should individuals do? Do we accept a watered down form of social nihilism? Do we reject the notion that progress exists in favour of existential relativism? Do we strive to deny that, as humans, we hold humanity and other people higher in our priorities than many things?"


These are the basic philosophical problems identified by the Ancient Greeks, the substance of Socrates' debates with the Sophists. We haven't neccessarily made any real progress.

For Socrates, the answers were never going to be found in schools of thought, books, theories etc. These were only the side-products of the search for true knowledge (philosophy means "love of knowledge", not the knowledge itself).

The ultimate basis of wisdom and virtue was self-knowledge - the Delphic injunction to "Know Thyself" - which Socrates sought for in conversation. In dialogue he could best "know himself".

In some ways a word like "human" or "Humanism" clarifies nothing - as I think Maps is saying.

What does the idea "human" really do?

Maybe it makes us think we are just an animal species. Or that we're "different" or "more" than animals or plants or rocks. Or it divides us from things we are really one with. Maybe it puts us at the centre of the universe - as Protagoras said: "man is the measure of all things". Or it's a (non)-explanation of some human behaviour as "good" (humane). Or it's a (non)-excuse for some behaviour as "bad" (inhumane).

But then, of course, Socrates said there was only one piece of self-knowledge he was sure of: his ignorance.

That, however, was quite an insight.

12:25 pm  
Anonymous mike said...

Sorry, I should add:

Socrates was an optimist. He thought that true knowledge was attainable and, indeed, the only worthwhile goal in life; and that true knowledge would lead people on a virtuous path.


In a way, this was an expression of moral faith - still perhaps the best function of organised religion (however corrupted it is at present).

12:38 pm  
Blogger brett said...

Hi Scott,

as this is your most recent blog I thought I might catch you here as I don't know how to contact you.
Could you please e-mail me at
brett@brettgraham.co.nz if you get a chance.

thanks,
Brett Graham

7:32 am  

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