PHILOSOPHY

June 1, 2010

“Unfelt” Misery of the American Workers

“None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.” –Goethe

§1. Philosophical Examination of the “Unfelt” Misery of the American Workers/Employees

Allow me to commence this article by asking two peculiarly vague questions: Are your beliefs, in terms of work ethics,  in your own interest or in the interest of those who want you to believe it? And, what is it that you pretend not to know about yourself when you are at the workplace?

Here in the United States of America, we oddly have given unprecedented primacy and priority to the business sector over and above all other social institutions, such as the institutions of marriage, family, health, the humanities, and so on. We have unilaterally and considerably unconsciously invested the business sector, and hence the economic entities, with significant – and one might add, with “invisible” – powers to almost unconditionally reign over our livelihood and lives. In fact, such economic entities are practically treated as sovereign, untouchable, and even sacred. Not often employees dare to fearlessly and candidly criticize, does not matter how legitimately, their employers or bosses. Is it because, perhaps, while you hold the key to your employer’s profitability, she or he seemingly holds the key to your life and demise? Is this fair enough? Besides the business principles of efficiency, effectiveness, and profitability – the principle of fear is also paramount in operations of businesses, for fear makes employees calculable, predictable, conformable, and – “valuable”.

In some European nations, such as France, if a citizen loses her or his job, the government will provide certain necessities such as: money for food, housing, and transportation, plus free healthcare and subsidized telephone line and Internet connection. As a result, under the governmental protection, the French employees have certain leverage against their employers, who do not hold the key to their lives and demise as done here in the United States. Such balance of powers between employers and employees is resisted against by certain governmental elements in America. Furthermore, in a peculiar sense, the business entities, by proxy, are extensions of our government, as they are heavily regulated under various federal agencies, such as the United States Department of Labor, Department of Commerce, the Internal Revenue Service, and so on. Generally speaking, such departments are more protective toward the business entities than toward those who work for them. We all witnessed how our Federal Government bailed out various giant corporations while the common citizens helplessly lost their jobs, cars, and homes.

Have you ever wondered why workplaces impose upon their employees “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, such as not to reveal to other employees your salary or hourly wage, or to refrain from communicating with terminated employees? Do such policies implicate elements of dishonesty, irresponsibility, corruption, and immorality within workplaces? In the land of “the free” and “the brave”, why is there so much unfreedom and fears in respect to the business entities? In the land where we take pride in our freedom of speech, why do we lose so much of it when we are at our workplaces? My point is that there is undeniably something spellbinding and hypnotic about the business entities and how we treat them in America.

A crucial question to ask is: Are the American workers complacent about their extant labor conditions because they are conveniently pacified with the rampant materialism and consumerism (i.e., pacified with possession of pacifiers such as iPods, laptops, the Internet, gigantic television sets, television programs, movies, entertainment industry, fashion, automobiles, houses or condominiums, weight loss, facelift, self-image, the American dream, and etc.) – or are they fearful, pretending not to know what they ought to know about themselves? How conscious or unconscious are we of our own states of mind in relation to the labor conditions in the United States of America?

In his book The Prince, the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) acknowledges that most people are moved by passion (such as fear) rather than by reason. Therefore, he advises that if a ruler desires to effectively exploit his people, the ruler must first learn their passions (and fears) – and then manipulate them to his own advantage. In our time, since greater number of people are principally concerned with the immediate gratification of their senses, and that they do not cultivate and entertain (maintain) their own characters, it is left to extraneous factors to mold, control, and farm the people – by manipulating their passions, for example, for Christ, material possessions, family values, lower pleasures, patriotism, the American dream, and etc. Otherwise, what will the people do with themselves? The human farmers (i.e., socio-economico-political engineers) exploit the herd mentality by making it a priority to create jobs for the herd and to indoctrinate them to the virtues of the American “work ethics” (which is an extension of the “bourgeois morality”). The jobs will supply the herd with livelihood and the desired pacifiers, while the work ethics turns their lives into a self-perpetuating pursuit of material goods and services. This relentless cycle of capital, labor, and consumption of goods and services, under the principle of “supply and [create] demand”, has defined our personal and national characters and identities. In this article, I will critically explore, and hopefully demystify to a degree, the “unfelt” misery of the American workers (used synonymously with “laborers” or “employees”).

Milton Friedman (1912-2006) & C.G. Jung (1875-1961)

§2. Corporate Ethics vs. Morality

Economic thinker Milton Friedman (1912-2006) writes that a person has many responsibilities, such as moral responsibilities toward family, people, society, country, and etc. In contrast, a business entity such as a corporation – which the law treats as a “person” – has only one responsibility according to Friedman: “to engage in activities designed to increase its profits, so long as it stays within the rules of the game.” Friedman portrays a corporation as a person preoccupied with making as much money as possible, maximizing its profits. In doing so, this fictional person conducts itself in a sovereignly selfish, self-serving, and single-minded manner. It does not take much trouble, especially since the recent and ongoing global economic crisis, to realize that a corporation, as an unruly fictional person, seems to be afflicted with severe mental and emotional problems! If you, as an actual person, be blind to your moral responsibilities and behave narcissistically, you would be considered an anti-social or, perhaps, a psychopath. My point is that we legally allow this corporate person to act in deliberate disregard toward moral responsibilities which you and I cannot ignore without being socially sanctioned or punished. We treat corporations with mythical reverence, like the way Zeus, the king of gods, is revered in the ancient Greek myths – the god who would not hesitate to cheat other gods or to bed his own offspring.

Furthermore, employees of a corporation are required to ethically and morally behave themselves toward the corporation – while the corporation does not equally hold itself responsible in ethical and moral terms toward the employees. This is, of course, hypocrisy! In essence, this is tantamount to corporate tyranny, which we have come to accept uncritically and fearfully. Practically, a corporation can, and often does, freely and irrationally criticize and/or terminate its employees without any scruples. Conversely, employees of such a corporation are expected to rationally and responsibly conduct themselves at all times, always embracing the best interest of the business at heart – while slavishly losing their own freedom of speech and individualities by mutating themselves from humans to assets of the company. Here, we will do well to remind ourselves of the Socratic maxim. After the Athenian jury found Socrates guilty of trumped-up charges and sentenced him to death by drinking poison, Socrates courageously faced them and said to them: “It is not death that we should escape from but wretchedness, for it runs faster than death.” In his essay entitled “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”, the Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) eloquently states:

“Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity. Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall. This process begins in  . . . all departments in which the State has a hand. In a small social body, the individuality of its members is better safeguarded, and the greater is their relative freedom and the possibility of conscious responsibility. Without freedom there can be no morality.”

Corporatism is quite an important issue in the age wherein more and more Americans are hired by corporations, which keep mercilessly swallowing up sole proprietors. It is an evident fact that corporations abuse their legally invested powers, and their “invisible” powers, against less powerful people and entities. In practice, a corporation is designed to protect itself very much at all costs. On January 21, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the long-standing restrictions on political spending by corporations. In general, the Court’s ruling empowers corporations to freely give money, in any amount, to campaigns for presidential and congressional elections. An urgent question to ask is: Are corporations for profit or for political power? The ideal corporation Friedman describes is out to do nothing but make as much money as it can “within the rules of the game.” The Supreme Court’s ruling may be pregnant with the implication that now corporations have the power to make their own “rules of the game” – which their lobbyists do anyway. By analogy, this is akin to putting prisoners in charge of the prison!

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

§3. Martin Heidegger: Labor and Time

If you agree that money is a substitute for time and energy, then you would also probably agree that what you sell to your employer are your “time” and “effort”. Verily, if your boss had enough time and energy to effectively manage all the affairs of the business, she or he would not need you to work for her or him. Time is expressive of a sacred aspect of your existence, in the sense that time, according to philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), is a precondition of your possibilities in life – and your life and your possibilities do not last forever here in this world. In this regard, how much does your “time” – as a measure and significance of your “being” in the world – matter to you? Your time is your treasure, and the sacrilege (from Latin sacrilegium, “theft of what is sacred”) of your time is extinction of your possibilities, of your life, of your being in the world.

Heidegger, in his book Being and Time, considers the question: Are you “authentic”? (The word “authentic” is derived from the Greek word authentēs, meaning “author”.) In other words, are you the author of your own “time” and “being”? If you, as an employee, are alienated from your own work products, work activities, and your own being at work, you will feel a sense of inauthenticity or not belonging to the workplace – because your time at work does not belong to you and does not serve your own being, but the employer’s – who makes profit (plus the surplus) while you make only an hourly wage (without the surplus). Is your precious time worth the hourly wage you receive? Some would argue that your salary or hourly wage is a measure of how much you respect yourself, let alone how much respect your employer holds for you. How much does your employer pay you per hour? Is your existence, your short time being in this world, worth that much? Or, does the finitude of your existence and possibilities make your time infinite in value, and above all, in significance? Think about it! This is not to imply to hold resentment toward your employer, but to be conscious of your own state of “being”, not letting it go “unfelt”.

If your workplace becomes an encagement (imprisonment) of your time, hence of your possibilities of being in the world, who is to blame? Heidegger would advise us not to be too quick to judge! And, he would insist that: a culture which confuses “being” with “having” and “time” with what is “now” – a culture which is obsessed with accumulation of entities (i.e., consumer goods) which conclusively define the culture’s spirit, orientation, values, and aspirations – is one that should alarm us. In other words, our culture, along with its fostered labor conditions, expresses the impoverishment of our ontological interest in our own existence and time. After all it is estimated that we, as a nation which presently constitutes about 5% of the world population, are currently consuming roughly about 47% of the world resources. The economic, political, and moral ramifications of this estimate are quite deplorable and atrocious! (By analogy, this is similar to 20 individuals getting stuck in middle of a barren desert with only 1 gallon of water, and one of the individuals appropriating about half of the water for himself while leaving the other half to be divided among the other 19 individuals. Hence, the one individual increases his survival at the cost of decreasing the survival of the 19.) Within this context, perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisis did not begin with the subprime mortgage market in the United States, but began with our insatiable greed, our “subprime” mentality, all the way from the governmental level to the level of the common citizens of this land. (For further exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy, see my previous article: https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/being-and-time-part-3/.)

G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)

§4. Hegel: Labor Conditions and Phenomenology of Self-consciousness

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) sets forth his history of the development of human self-consciousness, which is quite revelatory in the context of the existing labor conditions in America. The following passages will indicate that Hegel’s principles of development of human self-consciousness are subtly at work in our workplaces. The first stage of the developmental history of self-consciousness can be characterized as man’s mastery over objects. According to Hegel, at this early phase of human development, the self is conscious of objects surrounding it. The human self relates to these objects through desire for its own gratification, in order to satisfy its bodily appetites and needs. Further, the self finds pleasure in mastering the objects, for example, by handling them, shaping them, manipulating them, exploiting them, destroying them, canceling them out, or negating them. The self satisfies itself by making the objects serve him, for instance, by carving a piece of obsidian into a stabbing tool, by hunting animal objects, devouring their meat, appropriating their bones and hide. Hegel maintains that history reveals that the human self takes mastery of objects as its goal. And, there is one central principle at work in the self’s relation to objects: the principle of negation or death.

Hegel characterizes the next phase of the self’s development as the “life-and-death struggle”. In this movement, the death-dealing consciousness runs into conflict when the object to negate is a human object. The self, in annihilating the human object, realizes that the object has the same desire to master and negate the first self. Each self seeks to assert its own selfhood by overcoming the other. Therefore, the two selves engage in what Hegel refers to as the “trial by death”, whereby each self tries to negate the other. However, soon the self comes to the realization that there is a greater satisfaction to be had by keeping the other self alive. Hegel insists,

“Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it [self-consciousness] exists only in being acknowledged [by others].”

The self needs the other self to look at and recognize the first self as a self. In other words, Hegel argues, one cannot become conscious of one’s own selfhood, unless other selves serve as mirrors through which she or he can observe and be aware of her or his own self. Being conscious of our own existence requires the existence of other selves. Consequently, in the life-and-death struggle, if the self kills the other, the first self will lose on two counts: (1) it will not gain the contentment of having the other self recognize the first self’s mastery and victory, and (2) it will not have the other self acknowledge the first self as a self, and, hence, it will lose the chance of attaining selfhood. Rather than cancelling the other self out of existence, the first self takes great delight in keeping the other self alive and having it know and acknowledge who is the master, who is the self.

Hegel qualifies the next phase of the developmental history of self-consciousness as the “master-slave” (cf. employer and employee) relation, which is brought about by the immanent limitations of the life-and-death struggle. In this new movement, the victor learns not to kill the victim, but to keep him alive and enslaved – making him serve the desires and needs of the master. Hegel regards this new consciousness of master-slave relationship as a dominant factor in shaping the world history, as it commonly occurs during wars, wherein one nation overpowers the other, making the defeated nation serve the will of the triumphant nation. However, Hegel tells us that the master-slave relation suffers from its own inherent limitations or contradictions, which will eventually cause the demise of this mode of relation. In this relation, the slave is forced to work upon material things, to pour out his own existence into them, not for his own benefit and self-fulfillment – but for the welfare of the master. Therefore, the consciousness of master-slave relation renders the slave enmeshed in matter; he becomes indistinguishable from the raw materials and tools he works with; he is reduced to being a thing as opposed to a self; and, he is forced to work upon material things not for his own self-realization, but for the benefit and glory of the master.

Nevertheless, within this relationship, which, on the surface, seems to visibly benefit the master, there are certain internal factors which work over a period of time to favor the slave over the master. First, the master is dependent on the slave’s recognition of him as master, and this dependency of the master is precarious because there is no master unless the slave recognizes him as such. What if the slave refuses to acknowledge him as the master? If the slave determinedly and resolutely stops his self-belittling activities as a slave, then who will serve the desires of the master? Second, the slave has as his mirror the master as an independent person, whereas the master has as his mirror only a lowly dependent slave-self to relate to. This is the master’s only reflection of himself: an impoverished slave-self. Here, the implication is that: By impoverishing and turning the slave into a thing, the master also impoverishes and depreciates his own worth, his own selfhood. Third, and most important of all, although it appears that the master has the advantage in having the slave labor on material things for the master’s benefit, the long-run advantage of this is in fact for the slave. For in laboring, crafting, and producing objects, the slave finds himself in what he makes. He realizes that the objects which he has crafted, which he has transformed from raw materials into utilizable things, is the work of his own hands – and that he is the independent self who has created it. As a result, the slave’s labor, which materializes the will of the master, reveals to the slave that he is not a slave, a thing – that he is, indeed, distinguishable from the materials he works on. He comes upon his own independent existence as a consciousness with the will and power of its own.

Some years later, when German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) lays open the master-slave (“Lordship and Bondage”) chapter in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, he pronounces it as the meaning of labor, insisting that man’s nature is the result of his labor. In his book Capital, Marx affirms:

“As man works on nature outside himself and changes it, he changes at the same time his own nature.”

This is what Hegel’s slave has accomplished: transforming his own nature from a degraded being into an independent self. According to Marx, the modern capitalists (corporations and business owners) are comparable to Hegel’s master, and the modern laborers (i.e., workers or employees) correspond to Hegel’s slave. For him, the modern relations between “bourgeois” (owners) and “proletarian” (workers) are a rendition of the master-slave relationship. (For the rest of the phases of the developmental history of the human self-consciousness refer to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

§5. Karl Marx: Labor and Alienation

Karl Marx is a keen observer of how the modern conditions of labor under capitalism have radically changed our lives and the course of the world history. He believes that the modern economic relations have created a battleground where everybody ruthlessly pursues her or his own private interests. This is a battle of all against all, not excluding the subtle economic tensions existing between family members.

Consider an average American laborer (or worker), who works one or two jobs that are often monotonous, meaningless, and self-humiliating – although the laborer may not be conscious of her or his own woeful situation. The moment the laborer leaves home and hits the road to go to work, the war of all against all nauseatingly manifests itself right there on the road! The laborer labors eight hours or more per day, for five days or more per week. While at work, the laborer has to deal with work conditions that are often hostile and dehumanizing. So, the laborer grows weary and numb at work. Inasmuch as the laborer’s job is the principal source of her or his livelihood and welfare, the laborer’s job defines, regulates, and proceduralizes the laborer’s life both in and – outside of the workplace. Inescapably, the laborer will be socially defined by her or his job and income. Since we popularly value labor by the wage it makes, the less money the laborer makes the less the life of the laborer is valued, unfortunately. Verily, the laborer is chained to her or his job, which by and large pays enough to keep the laborer alive to return to work. After leaving the workplace with a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction, do you suppose the laborer will be in a favorable spirit to go home and meaningfully interact with her or his spouse and children? In all likelihood, her or his spouse is already experiencing the same wretched conditions. So, the couple, feeling unfulfilled and being physically and mentally drained, expediently resort to buy junk food for everyone, rather than enjoying a healthy meal which can cost more time and money. (As Marx puts it, “The less you eat . . . the greater becomes your treasure . . . your capital. The less you are the more you have”.) Hence, the poor labor conditions of the couple – which is the same labor conditions under which millions of other Americans find themselves – pave the way toward the degradation of their psychological and physical health, for which the healthcare industry is awaiting with open arms! (Not many realize how our work conditions bleed into our personal lives and relations.) Later, after some hours of watching their favorite television programs, the couple may suddenly feel that they can find a sense of fulfillment, or even a sense of identity, by going to a mall and shop! Tragically enough, there are those who think that shopping is a great “therapy”, which is in fact a poor substitution for the “happiness” they seek. As long as the legal and political structure of capitalism keeps the working class depressed and spiritually impoverished, the shopping therapy will continue and the wheels of our economy will turn! Unfortunately, our Government seems to value our contributions to the U.S. economy as more important than our contributions to our own wellbeing.

Here, my point is that, as Marx thinks, our modern economic conditions (of which the labor conditions are an integral part) create a social setting that the more one participates in it – the less human one becomes. As he expresses it in his Paris Manuscripts:

“Money . . . transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy.”

In the case of the American laborer and his or her spouse, their jobs – or more specifically, the prevalent economic conditions – deprive them of their health, self-identity, and meaningful relationship with one another, with their children, and with their coworkers – and all this in the country that self-professedly is all about “family values”! In his Manifesto, Marx writes that the capitalists as “leaders of whole industrial armies” have overturned the traditional human relationships of the feudal age, leaving no other relationship “between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Furthermore, under capitalism, the institution of family itself has become a monetary unit, wherein members of family relate to one another monetarily. Capitalism, according to Marx, has mercilessly turned family and social values into monetary values. As he puts it, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . . .” Since in capitalism capital is of “utmost value”, other values – such as values of love, marriage, family, friendship, decency, mercy, honesty, fairness, truth and so on – become subservient to the value of money and property.

According to the dominant capitalist mentality (of which the American work ethics is a byproduct that has been stealthily implanted in peoples’ unconscious minds as their own), your misery and unhappiness are entirely your own fault, and that you deserve it and should not complain about it. Certainly, there is an element of truth to this admonition. However, this truth will not run very far as long as our government does not wholeheartedly and indiscriminately provide the necessary conditions under which all the citizens can have the opportunity to educate and better themselves. By analogy, an apple seed can grow to become an apple tree – only under the right conditions: namely, proper weather and soil, adequate amount of water, and enough sunlight. One would not expect an apple seed to grow on its own accord and become fruitful in middle of a barren dessert. In the same manner, a woman or a man needs the proper conditions in order to develop as a human and to be a fruitful member of the society. One needs to be free from ignorance and prejudice in order to be free to humanly cultivate one’s potentials. What is the point if one demands freedom of speech when one is not enabled or educated enough to know how to exercise the right? The eminent Cordovan philosopher, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), known in the West as Moses Maimonides, insisted that, “The aim of any society . . . [should be] the development of human beings and not of wealth.” In the same spirit, the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) stated, “Create citizens, and you have everything you need; without them, you will have nothing but debased slaves, from the rulers of the State downwards.”

Marx fundamentally construes humans as adventurous and creative beings, with faculties geared toward externalizing their creativity through productions of cultural artifacts, such as tools, buildings, artworks, literature, science, and etc. However, under the present economic conditions under capitalism, laborers’ work products have become alien to them because, according to Marx, their productive activities are done in servitude to the money-God, rather than in serving their own human potentials and fulfilling their own creative nature. Therefore, per Marx, the history of human creative production has been a history of alienation from our creative nature. In his essay entitled “The Jewish Question”, he writes:

“Money is the jealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand. Money dethrones all the gods of man and turns them into a commodity. Money is the universal, independently constituted value of all things. It has therefore deprived the whole world, both the world of man and nature, of its own value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and his being. This alien being rules him and he worships it.”

For Marx, the modern commercial world under capitalism is a religion of money worship, which disunites and alienates (estranges) members of society, including family members, from one another. In accordance with his Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844, human alienation takes on four forms:

1)    Alienation from your work products: The money economy of capitalism alienates the worker from her or his work products, which exist as things estranged and indifferent to the worker who creates them, and which also exist as objects of pleasure for somebody else.

2)    Alienation from your productive Activities: The money mania of capitalism alienates the worker from her or his productive activities – activities which are turned into “forced labor” because the activities of the worker are not of personal interest to her or him, who is compelled to perform them just to keep alive.

3)    Alienation from your human qualities: The modern money economy alienates the worker from her or his fundamental human and social qualities, such as love, sympathy, kindness, leisure, and etc.

4)    Alienation from your fellowmen: At last, capitalism alienates the worker from her or his fellow men. Marx called this “the estrangement of man from man”, whereby we all compete against each other.

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929)

§6. Habermas: Labor, Communication, and Emancipation

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is known for his reformulation of a pre-existing theory known as the “critical theory” – a theory whose interest is in the practical, not just theoretical, emancipation of human beings. German philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), a pioneer of this theory, under whom Habermas had studied, stated in his Critical Theory (Kritische Theorie) that a theory is vital or critical to the degree it endeavors “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”. Critical theory is based on and builds upon philosophy of Karl Marx. Indeed, the critical theory’s longing to liberate human beings in practice is expressive of Marx’s statement, “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (Italics are added.).

In concocting his theory, Habermas maintains that the human species has three fundamental (or critical) interests: in labor, communication, and emancipation. He insists that these fundamental interests are so essential and vital that we cannot meaningfully subsist without them. He commences his critical theory by making a distinction between labor and communication. The first fundamental interest of the human species is in reproducing their lives through labor (or work). The second fundamental interest of the human species is in communication (or interaction) with one another. Without these deeply seated interests in labor and communication, social bonds would disintegrate and society would parasitically consume itself. For Habermas, the formation of human self takes place in the spheres of both labor and communication within social context. However, he construes the communicative dimension of human interactions as having a primary role in development of human self, since he, akin to Hegel, is of the conviction that we become selves in our interaction with other selves. In this context, if an individual is incapable of adequately communicating with others and incapable of psychologically and morally benefiting from her or his productive activities, the individual would be vulnerable to self-deficiency. Habermas emphatically insists that human development is significantly contingent on how human beings externalize their creativity in their labor and how they communicate or interact with each other. Besides labor and communication, Habermas claims that the human race has a third fundamental interest: the critical interest in human emancipation, in human liberation from unnecessary constraints to their psychophysical and moral development. Indeed, a society that does not embody these three rudimentary factors in its fabric would be in a state of disintegration, and the members of such a society would become alienated from their own selves, each another, and their socio-economico-political institutions. One wonders that to what degree the United States has incorporated the three fundamental factors in its institutions of labor, mass communication, and so forth.

Emphasizing the fundamental human interest in clear and unobstructed communication with one another, Habermas makes a contrast between “undistorted communication” and systematically “distorted communication”. He lays out a series of qualifications for undistorted communication. According to one of the qualifications, truly undistorted communication must have “symmetry conditions”. In political terms, it means that everyone must have an equal opportunity to talk and to listen, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey. This symmetrical communication is an egalitarian principle, without which the possibility of undistorted communication among various parties becomes knotty and problematic. When an employer or government holds power over powerless employees or citizens respectively, the inequality of power between them creates a condition for distorted communication. Unequal power distorts communication. This is why employees seldom get the undistorted truth from their employers, and employers seldom get the undistorted truth from their employees. Their communication is often distorted by relations of unequal powers.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates owned nothing and was virtually in no position of power in Athens. Yet, his charm was that when he engaged in an argument with someone who had power (either of political nature or of social status) over him, Socrates would compel him to depend solely on the force of his argument, as opposed to his political power or social status. In other words, this was no situation where “might is right”. The only force that Habermas wants us to recognize is the unforced force of communicatively rational argument, as opposed to brute power of money or physical might. A free human being is one who can change his or her mind upon hearing a better argument – without feeling any shame. When a judicious argument has the force to make one see the weakness of one’s own argument and change one’s mind in accordance to it, this is the force that only a free human being can recognize.

Habermas contends that our survival fundamentally pivots around liberating ourselves from distorted communication and fostering humane practices of labor. Is it the case that the American labor force – whose labor conditions are alienable and not as humane as they seem – has managed to subsist so far because of the mass communication industry which actively distorts laborers’ perceptions of their own misery and compels them to pacify themselves with consumer goods and services? In a nation where capital is of utmost value and where perpetual mass consumption of goods and services vitally sustains the heartbeat of the nation, there may not be any other way.

Habermas’ concept of distorted communication corresponds to Karl Marx’s concept of “ideology”: the ruling ideas are in every age the ideas of the ruling class – connoting that, the ruling ideas of the ruling class are ideologies that are purposefully devised to impoverish the masses and to maintain the elite in positions of power. Further, Habermas’ concept of distorted communication passes the test of ideology by asking: Is what you believe – in the interest of those who want you to believe it? For instance, one can take “democracy” as it exists in the United States. The powerful – those who own and control the means of production, communication, information, and dissemination – want the citizens to blindly believe that democracy is a present and immanent reality in this nation. Yet, American democracy and its exportation around the globe, under the banner of freedom, is an outstanding example of systematically distorted communication – as our existing democracy gutlessly backstabs the principle of having a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. “Work ethics” in America is another striking example of systematically distorted communication. In reality, work ethics in America is not so ethical at all – for it is an ideology or sets of codes of conduct that are designed to systematically manipulate and deprive the working class for the sake of benefiting the capitalists. The American work ethics – which has been so cunningly and subconsciously embedded in the minds of the American working class – has deprived them of their leisure, dignity, humanity, family, health, and etc. – and all this serves the interest of those who own the means of production, communication, information, and dissemination. Do you think a capitalist boss is ready and willing to engage in “undistorted communication” with her or his employees? The capitalist boss may never acquiesce to engage in undistorted communication with her or his employees; however, her or his employees’ enlightened consciousness – if enlightened at all – of their own dehumanizing labor conditions would make it difficult for the boss not to submit. Money and power, as abstract systems, need to be harmonized with the rest of our social system before we can be in a position to truly communicate with one another rationally and without distortions.

(Dear reader, please feel free to make a critique of this article. I look forward to learning from you!)

For further exploration of philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Jürgen Habermas see the following links:

Jürgen Habermas (Disentanglement of Reason from Terror): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/critical-theory/

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 1): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/being-and-time-part-1/

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 2): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/being-and-time-part-2/

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 3): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/being-and-time-part-3/

Advertisements

May 3, 2010

The Last Wish to “Exist”

Variation on a theme of Muli Koppel’s “The Jump of Ks” http://digitalphilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/12/26/the-jump-of-ks/

Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void”

The Last Wish to “Exist”

On Oct. 10, 1967 at 12:00 P.M., Søren was at the workplace: bored, depressed, and objectified. All of a sudden, he hastily ran off without punching out for lunch break and situated himself on the ledge of the wall:

“There is no point living if I can’t feel life. I need to think in concrete – without losing the ground beneath my feet. I need to exist . . . I must exist. Not by being here. Not by pretending not to know what is befalling me. What is worse than death than not existing at all? I must disabuse myself to the point of no return. I need not to know the meaning of being alive. No, I need no meaning if I can’t participate in it. What I crave is to experience being alive, to throw myself into it. No bliss without risk; no life without sacrifice. Doubting is the poverty of spirit. I must keep my spirit buoyant to fly. I have no more time to deliberate; it is time to liberate. Freely against the calculus of pain and fear I go . . . Today is the first day of the rest of my life, however short!”

Søren passionately leaped into the unknown. His death certificate pronounced him dead at 12:00 P.M. of that day at the workplace.

April 23, 2010

Being and Time (Part 2)

Anxiety of “Being-in-the-world”

Heidegger’s Significance in Our Time

On rare occasions and without forewarning, and seldom without conscious awareness, we may involuntarily suffer from an uncanny mood that can be characterized as ambiguous, apprehensive, indecisive, and uncertain—a suspicious mood that resists being clearly articulated. Once we are affected by this obscure mood, it sets in like nightfall. The deeper we sink in it, the darker and more inaccessible our world becomes while we become alienated from ourselves, others, and everyday routines. Under such condition, according to German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), we do not feel at “home” in the world. At such confusing moments, we often ignore this mood by returning to our “everydayness”, i.e., our nonreflective modes of existing, such as being absorbed in our everyday routines, occupations, recreational activities, and so on. We often fill up our lives with busyness in order to flee from this mood. In fact, Heidegger suggests that our everydayness might be at times a subterranean or subconscious way of escape and taking refuge from this disorienting mood. If you seek a psychiatrist to rid you of this particular mood, she or he may conventionally prescribe you some pills to numb your alertness to this crisis, which perhaps can be metaphorically qualified as an alarm clock. But, what does this alarm clock alarm you about?

Heidegger is renowned for his ontological phenomenology (a specific way of “showing”) of this tabooic mood, which he refers to as “Angst”, translated in English as “anxiety”. Of course, as you may have suspected, this anxiety is not your common type of anxiety. Heidegger interpreted this anxiety as a dimension or structure of an existing human, whom he refers to as “Dasein”, meaning “Being-there” or, alternatively, “Being-in-the-world”. (Heidegger, repudiating to think of us as mere things, depicts us as “Being-there” or “Being-in-the-world” instead of “humans”. The latter term, human, is readily indicative of a thing or entity while the former is expressive of an activity that signifies a qualitative mode of existing.)

By the time we wake up every morning, we find ourselves already here. From the womb of time, we were helplessly born sometime, some place, some gender, some race, and into some social class. Heidegger characterizes this phenomenon as us having been “thrown into the world”. When we become acutely conscious that we exist, we catch ourselves already in the world—the world in which we are, if you will, condemned to be and there is no escape until death removes us from the world. Accordingly, since we catch ourselves thrown into the world, we are, unlike an inert object such as a stone, never moodless. In fact, Heidegger posits that our “thrownness” or moods (some more than others) can disclose to us our Being-in-the-world and can transform our being into a life-long “project”. And, if we remove our moods, we may remove ourselves from the world. Heidegger suggests that we should not bar our moods altogether, but to find the appropriate moods to cultivate. He insists that moods are not only our ways of finding ourselves in the world, but also they “attune” us to the world.

Generally speaking, in the contemporary American society, we often readily dismiss our moods, especially the unsettling ones, as insignificant, random, or passing phases. There is a sense in which we assume, perhaps with a degree of shame, that moods divorce us from reality and who we are. On the contrary, Heidegger construes moods as a key to self-knowledge or self-interpretation and as a context within which our world (its meanings, significances, and values) is shaped. We are often admonished “don’t cry” when we are sad, or we are told “smile” when our pictures are being taken. Or, our employers command us “leave your worries and personal problems at home when you come to work”, which is practicable, but unrealistic. Consequently, we are conditioned to become fake, which is highly common and, in fact, encouraged. We are good at faking or simulating moods. One can think of a typical retail clerk or waiter who greets customers with a fake smile, simulating the act of being hospitable and caring. According to Heidegger, this is an inauthentic attempt to evade our “thrownness” and “facticity”—senselessly ignoring what he views as the threefold structure of Being-in-the-world: our past (how and who we were), our present (how and who we are), and our future (how and who we will become).

After all said and done, how does Heidegger attempt to demystify the mood of anxiety? In the course of his phenomenological investigation of this mood, Heidegger indicates how disturbing it is for us to truly “exist” (from Latin ex-sistere, “to stand out”) and face up to our agonizing situation, which may account for why the everyday view treats anxiety as a taboo or dismisses it as an instance of meaningless confusion, and promotes shallow and superficial interpretations of ourselves and the world. We are readily inclined to ward off such anguishing disturbances and to preoccupy ourselves with what Heidegger calls “everydayness”, activities that tuck the anxiety, as it were, under the rug of our being.

Heidegger asks how we would narrate the stories of our lives. Would they be stories worth telling? Would they be meaningful stories (like that of Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi, or Albert Einstein)? Here, the word “meaning” is expressive of how genuinely we can relate to our own Being, to our past, present, and future possibilities. According to Heidegger, anxiety can unconceal a significant meaning of our life stories. For him, this anxiety is not a symptom of a mental disorder or some kind of chemical imbalance. It is rather a “structure” of Being-in-the-world. This anxiety is not some thing that a psychiatrist can relieve us of it – because this anxiety is us, Being-in-the-world. To ask to be rid of our fundamental anxiety is to ask to eradicate whatever has remained of what we call our selves!

When we are in the grip of this anxiety, we often abandoned ourselves to what Heidegger calls Das Man (“the they”) or the crowd. It is easy to get lost in the crowd when we are face to face with the anxiety. Often, when a person is in denial of this rudimentary anxiety, it is the crowd that chooses the person’s life projects, and “they” – not the person – will narrate the person’s fragmented life-story and define the meaning of the person’s life. In this context, our anxiety can reveal our past as something that we could not help, our present as an escape from our selves, and our future as an impossibility of our potentials. This is a life story of being “inauthentic” (cf. Karl Marx’s concept of “alienation”: https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/10/modernity/).

Comparatively speaking, while the object of fear is something definite and specific, such as a spider or getting fired from a job, the object of anxiety is not any thing explicit and specific. Heidegger describes anxiety as a generalized mood that is about our Being-in-the-world as a whole. This mood may affect us at any time, as it were, when it slips out from beneath the rug. It can happen when, for instance, we are enjoying our favorite activities or when we are down on our luck. Once our being is totally eclipsed by anxiety, our activities are abruptly rendered empty, meaningless, and pointless; security of our everyday existence slips away; and we find ourselves “falling”, as it were, in an abyss. While certain aspects of life may still interest us, life as a whole becomes purposeless and otiose, a wasteland.

Although anxiety is potently alienating, it does not separate us from the world. Rather, it reconnects us to the world in such a way that we do not feel at “home” anymore. In other words, anxiety presents the world to us as an urgent problem, in which our nexus – to having been rooted in a past smeared into our present which faces a future – comes to the center of our being. Here, Heidegger’s attempt is to portray how the three dimensions of Being-in-the-world (i.e., past, present, and future) fit together into a single constitution which he refers to as Sarge, translated in English as “care”. Heidegger employs the term “care” in a peculiar manner to mean interconnectedness or interrelatedness of beings. In this sense, hence, we experience anxiety because our own being, being of others, and being of the world “matter” to us – because we “care”. We are all entangled in the world. In terms of meaning and significance, according to Heidegger, our Being is dependent on the world as much as the world is dependent on our Being. This is not difficult to imagine if we anthropomorphize the game of chess: the chess pieces (representing us), their relation to one another, and their functions would be obsolete if they were deprived of the chessboard (representing the world). And, conversely, the chessboard would be of no significance and value without the chess pieces.

Anxiety, as a particular way of Being-in-the-world, is abject homelessness, and no one has immunity to its possibility (cf. Kierkegaard’s concept of “anxiety”: https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/11/the-sickness-unto-death/). In fact, this possibility distinguishes us from other animals. For instance, unlike a human being, a dog’s being does not seem to be an issue for it. A dog does not need to ask: Who am I? Where am I? Why am I? What is the meaning of my life? What should I do with my life? Animals’ needs and goals are fixed for them by nature. They are fettered to their “home” in a way that we have never been. Animals cannot help being “what” they are. In sharp contrast, we can choose our ways of being; we are capable to choose a “home” of our own making.

Employing quasi-Heideggerian terms, I interpret Heidegger’s concept of anxiety as follows: The mortification of anxiety is a confused state of being that unwittingly makes a judgment about some “thing” it does not understand that is no thing: namely, the nothingness of human existence. Here, the “thing” – that is no thing – is us. And, the fateful “judgment” is a predication of “us”: we are merely things amid other things. In his Repetition, Søren Kierkegaard, who had great influence on thoughts of Heidegger, wrote:

“I stick my finger into existence – it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? . . . Why was I not consulted, . . . throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? . . . And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? . . . Is there no director?” (Italics added.)

The nothingness of human existence does not necessarily set the stage for pessimism, but for a new opportunity or horizon, in the sense that our existence can be construed as a blank canvas that is receptive to our paintbrush and paint – if we can authentically reach the blank canvas of our Being.

At this point, at least for now, we should not be concerned whether the judgment – that we are things amid other things – is correct or incorrect, true or false, or cogent or not cogent – but we should be concerned with how this judgment actually has enriched or impoverished our conception of ourselves and the world – including our past, present, and future possibilities. Of course, a common reply is the cliché, “I know we are not things, we are ‘spirits’.” And, Heidegger may coldly and calculatedly reply:

“Nonsense! – Like a parrot, you’re merely mimicking what ‘they’ [Das Man] say, not understanding what you’re hysterically uttering. Your ‘spirit’ is an outdated custom, habit, poor imitation, distorted idea, tattered piece of clothing that doesn’t even fit your body anymore! Your ‘spirit’ is a decaying tapestry that can be held against the wall only by being cemented to it. Your ‘spirit’ is your lack of spirit. Your ‘spirit’ is impoverishment of your being.”

And, we should keep in mind that, from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, while we may subconsciously behold the nothingness of our existence (especially in the view of our eventual death), we may nevertheless consciously deny it as ludicrous.

In his book Heidegger, philosopher Richard Polt expounds:

“Anxiety is a moment of meaningless confusion, as the everyday perspective has it – but it is ‘meaningless’ not in the sense that it is trivial, but in the sense that it [anxiety] involves a deep crisis of meaning. . . . [I]n anxiety the meanings and functions that are so familiar in everyday dwelling do not simply disappear. In fact, by becoming a problem, they strike one with unusual force. By putting the familiar in an unfamiliar light, anxiety gives one the opportunity to come to grips with one’s life, to dwell in the world clear-sightedly and resolutely.”

In an ethical sense, using non-Heideggerian terms, anxiety can be construed as a purely human phenomenon that entails a crisis of values that misrelates and alienates us from ourselves, each other, and the world. We keep looking for a “thing” to give us identity, purpose, meaning, worth, and worthwhile experience of being, but we find “nothing” – which we construe as bad and reprehensible, not understanding that this “nothing” is something that is no thing. Figuratively speaking, this is akin to a man trying to catch a rainbow! As psychoanalyst Eric Fromm eloquently puts it in an interview: “Are you what you have? What if you lose what you have?” In other words, thus far and for the most part, we have treated our Being-in-the-world as being in a shopping mall – looking for things. We have been blind to other possibilities of Being-in-the-world. Perhaps, a point, relevant to our time, that Heidegger is trying to get across is that: there is an immaterial, yet intelligible, dimension to our lives (co-evolved along side what we call the material dimension) that if we discount it, the consequences can be quite devastating. Perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisis (which had its origin in the U.S. with the subprime mortgage phenomenon) is such a consequence, caused by our subprime ways of thinking. In my attempt to interpret Heidegger’s interpretation of Being-in-the-world, I ask: Is it perhaps the case that our existence is not primarily about having or possessing objects, but about an ontological interest: a way of being or an experience of being?

According to Heidegger, the mood of anxiety can be revelatory when our own existence becomes an issue for us. In the mornings, upon awaking and opening our eyes to the world, we are faced with the task of being what we have already been and becoming, if at all, what we can possibly become. We strive to become someone, and the way we contend with the possibilities open to us will settle who we become. As Heidegger insists, Dasein “is always only that which it has chosen itself to be.” If we are responsive and attentive enough, anxiety can serve us by communicating to us our states of being in a fundamental and critical way – in fact so fundamental and critical that it can open up new possibilities in life if we have the courage and endurance not to dismiss the anxiety as random, unimportant, and inconsequential. Many of us, of course, may faint under such burden and continue to “fall”, as Heidegger says. A stone thrown into a pond will helplessly fall and sink, yet a Being-in-the-world can catch itself after having been thrown into the world! Inasmuch as anxiety can reveal the task of choosing who we are and who we will become, it can inhale a new life in us – moving us to turn this crisis into a turning point and to stop being thrown around like a stone. Alternatively, we may simply choose to remain who we already are, but in a way that we truly choose this identity, instead of just letting it being thrown at us. Heidegger does not merely construe us as having been thrown into the world – but we can overthrow our thrown-condition by acknowledging our past, actively seizing our present, and “projecting” (from Latin projecte, “to throw forth”) ourselves toward future possibilities of Being-in-the-world. He maintains that this “projection” is not an abstract concept locked in a philosopher’s mind, but an “authentic” and “concrete” activity that can be externalized out in the world.

We live in a culture that may be too superficial for Heidegger’s account of the anxiety of Being-in-the-world. In the contemporary American culture, our conceptions of being and time are distorted by our crisis of imagination, whereby for us being is tantamount to having and time is indistinguishable from what is immediate. A culture that is obliviously obsessed with the present – i.e., a culture that is absorbed in accumulation and manipulation of entities (material objects) which conclusively define its spirit, orientation, values, and aspirations – is one that should alarm us. A people that are preoccupied with their superficial appearances, with weight loss, staying young, being wrinkle-free, and looking upon elderly with indignity – are a people in denial. Is it worth it to narrate a life story of such vanity? Tragically enough, we see and hear such narrations on television screens almost everyday: “I was fat and depressed, but now I am skinny and happy!” This is the poverty of spirit of this depressed culture. The culture that should alarm us is one in which anxiety of death has no significance for our projects and life stories. Per Heidegger, we should choose our life projects in full awareness that Being is always “Being-towards-death”. And, this awareness does not cripple our daily activities, but will authenticate them. According to Heidegger, this recognition and acceptance of our fundamental anxiety free us from the crowd and free us for our life projects. He insists that an authentic life is one in which one does not flee from one’s destiny, but one shapes it as far as possible. He writes:

“Anxiety makes manifest in Dasein its Being towards its ownmost potentiality-for-Being – that is, its Being-free for the freedom of choosing itself and taking hold of itself. Anxiety brings Dasein face to face with its Being-free for (propensio in . . .) the authenticity of its Being, and for this authenticity as a possibility which it always is. But at the same time, this is the Being to which Dasein as Being-in-the-world has been delivered over.”

It is characteristically true that, unlike science, philosophy cannot be tested; however, for Heidegger philosophy is not some thing to be had and tested in a laboratory – but philosophy is to be lived out in the world. Heidegger’s thoughts in respect to anxiety of Being-in-the-world are meritorious of earnest consideration. His thinking is no medieval speculation on how many angels can dance on the pointy tip of a needle.

April 22, 2010

Being and Time (Part 1)

Being-there

Martin Heidegger

Web of Being and beings

What is “being”? What does it mean to be? What does differentiate your being from nothing? What does mark off your being from an entity such as a rock? What is the meaning of being—not just your being in specific, but being in general? Ostensibly, these are simple questions that any sensible human should be able to answer. But are they really that simple and effortless to answer?

The preceding questions were painstakingly considered by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in his monumental work Being and Time. However, before I begin, I would like to make some prefatory comments. Given the way we are accustomed to think, understanding Heidegger’s thoughts, in my estimation, are quite exacting, although they may sometimes seem basic, or even ridiculous, at the first glance. Comprehending his thoughts entails copious toil at learning and re-familiarizing ourselves with “being”. None of the philosophers that were previously discussed here (i.e., Søren KierkegaardHerbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard) wrestled with the ontological question of being in the remarkably unprecedented way Heidegger did.

In his Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to snap us out of our disposition to take “being” for granted, and he tries to awaken us to the question of the meaning of being. On the surface, being refers to anything that exists in some way, such as physical objects, humans, moods, emotions, memories, dreams, activities, events, stories, mermaids, qualities, conditions, symbols, abstractions, ideas, or theories. But, what does make a being count as being instead of nothing? What is the difference between being and nothing? On what basis do we understand a being as being?

Heidegger seems to tell us that a sheer property such as weight, shape, size, texture, color, emotion, feeling, or thought, just to name a few, does not render a being as being. (For instance, shape, size, color, taste, smell, and texture of an apple do not qualify it as being.) On the contrary, Heidegger seems to imply that “Being” (with capital “B”) is that which renders these attributes as existing properties of beings. (That is, Being qualifies the shape, size, color, taste, smell, and texture of an apple as its existing properties, not the other way around.) Heidegger makes a distinction between an entity and its Being—which is spelled with capital “B” in order to distinguish “Being” from a being. Asking about Being is not like asking about an object—because it is not a question about any entity at all. According to Heidegger:

“[Being is] . . . that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood. . . . The Being of entities is not itself an entity.” (Being and Time; 26:6; translated by John Macquarie & Edward Robinson; Harper Collins 1962)

We are asking about a thing that is no thing at all. Heidegger seems to warn us that we must not make the mistake of confusing Being with any entity such as a rock, plant, animal, the universe, or even God. Being is deemed as a condition of the possibility of our experience of entities. Whenever we experience an entity in any way, we must already have an understanding, however vague and distorted, of Being that makes this experience possible. Insofar as Being of humans is concerned, Heidegger is not necessarily asking who we are—yet he seems to imply that who we are is contingent on our Being.

Having thus far stipulated Being in this manner, it seems that Being of a thing, apart from the thing itself, is empty: absence of all content. Yet, there is a significant difference between Being and absence. If one’s house burns down or one’s loved one passes away, suddenly the absence of the house or the loved one overwhelms the person with pain. At such moments we realize that there are, in fact, significant differences between Being and absence. Being matters. Yet, the question remains: What is Being?

Heidegger proposes that in order to clarify Being in general, we must first clarify our own Being in particular. Sciences such as psychology, anthropology, or sociology ultimately view human Being as a thing while discriminating it from the rest of things. However, for Heidegger, human Being is not a thing at all. Things are “whats”, and their Being is “presence-at-hand” (objective presence), lacking temporal dimensions and significances of their own Being. Their existence is not an issue for them, and their ontological characteristics are “categories” such as causality. Things formulate no purposes of their own. In terms of non-human animals, they have short-term, immediate goals, such as escaping from danger, finding safety, or procuring food. In contrast, a human is a “who” whose Being, in addition to Being of things, matters to her or him. Her or his existence is an issue to be reckoned with. Our Being is “existence”, not presence-at-hand, that finds significances and purposes in terms of a past, present, and future. Our ontological characteristics are what Heidegger refers to as “existentialia” (existentials).

Heidegger suggests that Being tends to lie hidden. We are normally and habitually so absorbed in entities or things, which display themselves so obviously to us, that it takes tremendous effort to unconceal Being. In thinking about Being, either that of our own or that of other things, we tend to fall into superficial and misguided ways of thinking. Describing a human as an entity is a relatively easy challenge: we document her or his capacities, functions, behaviors, shape, size, and other properties. But describing the Being of a human is far more difficult. In this sense, Being transcends beings.

On the surface, nothing seems more obvious and self-evident than Being; nonetheless, it is seemingly an exacting task to clarify Being. It turns out that, after all, Being is not easy to know, and it is difficult to draw a line between Being and nothing. According to Heidegger, a difficulty in answering the question of Being is due to our outmoded and impoverished ways of thinking, which we have inherited from a distant past. Traditionally, we have always mistakenly identified Being as an entity or a thing, whereas Being is no thing, Heidegger insists. For instance, in thinking about a human being, we erroneously confuse the physical presence of the human with her or his Being in the present. When we identify Being with “physical presence” (i.e., with the entity that an individual is now and disregarding her or his temporality and historicity), then we can become obsessed with beings to present themselves to us unchangeably, conclusively, flawlessly, perfectly. Consequently, utter obsession with, for example, losing weight, staying young, and feeling ashamed of getting old and wrinkly are all too common in the contemporary American culture. It is not rare to see sixty-year-olds acting like and dating twenty-one-year-olds. Such instances of self-alienation (or, as Heidegger would call, “inauthenticity”) are commonplace.

It can be difficult and disturbing to face our own temporality and to experience the obscurity of our Being. It is more convenient to slip back into an everyday state of complacency and routines. Rather than wrestling with what it means to be and who we are, we would prefer to be engrossed into the world of materials and to be preoccupied with measuring and manipulating present beings. This absorption into the present leads to self-deception by objectifying or reifying our own Being. Heidegger consistently points to the difference between this everyday state of oblivion and a state in which we genuinely face up to our conditions, temporality, historicity. This is the difference between “inauthenticity” and “authenticity”. Heidegger insists that, an authentic life is one in which one does not escape from one’s destiny, but shapes it as far as possible.

Heidegger points out, “Our provisional aim is the Interpretation of time as the possible horizon [context] for any understanding whatever of Being.” (Being and Time; 19:1) He proposes that Being needs to be grasped in terms of time; our sense of what it is to be depends on temporality. He insists that it is the acknowledgement of our “temporality” (i.e., our authentic relation to our past, present, and future) that makes us sensitive to Being. We are historical beings: we are rooted in a “past” that stretches into a “present” which thrusts into a “future”. We inherit a past tradition that we share with others, and we pursue future possibilities that define us as individuals. As we do so, the world opens up for us, and beings get understood. Heidegger insists that our historicity (in which our Being is always “toward death”) does not cut us off from reality. On the contrary, it opens us up to the meaning of Being.

Consider an ahistorical being such as Mount Everest. It was there when you were born; it is still there in present as you are reading this; and it will continue to be there, if left undisturbed, by the time you pass away. The mountain is simply “there”—and it would not make a difference to it if it were elsewhere or were not at all. If the mountain is somehow removed and placed elsewhere, it will still remain the same mountain. Its “there” does not matter to it. It seemingly has no relationship to its own Being; it cannot “care” about its own Being; it cannot relate to its own Being. In contrast, a mountain climber who climbs Mount Everest is not simply “what” she is. She is not merely a type of object. She “cares” about her own Being and her “there”; her Being matters to her; her own Being is an issue to her. Her “there” is significant to her. Without her “there”, her existence would be as meaningless and obsolete as a pawn removed from the chessboard.

We have a “there” as no other entity does because for us the world is understandable and meaningful. In Being and Time, Heidegger avoids using the old, worn-out word “human” to depict us; instead, he uses the term “Being-there” (Dasein, in German) in the sense that we are in such a way as to be our “there”. Unlike Mount Everest, our Being and “there” matter to us. It is not just that we happen to be in a world, a “there”. Rather, our “there” is so essential to us that we would be nothing at all without it, like a pawn taken away from the chessboard. Conversely, our “there” would be nothing without us, as a chessboard would be meaningless without the chess pieces. Or, for instance, the world of Greece of antiquity could not be what it was without the ancient Greeks; conversely, the ancient Greeks could not be who they were without that world. Our world, our “there”, is the context in terms of which we understand ourselves, and within which we become who we are. We are the “there” of Being. In other words, we are the site that Being requires in order (literally) to take place. Without Being-there (i.e., humans), other entities could continue to be, but there would be no one to define them and relate to them as entities. Their Being would have no meaning at all.

Apparently, what it means to exist for an entity such as a mountain is very different from what it means to exist as a human. Mountains and humans have different ways of Being there. It is not just any activity that characterizes humans, but a way of Being. Our sort of Being, our mode of existing, is what marks us out. Our way of existing is qualitatively different from the way in which a mountain exists. As we go on living, we build our individual identities and define ourselves. It matters to us who we are. A mountain, in contrast, simply is what it is. It cannot have identity crisis, because it does not need to determine its own existence. We are uniquely conscious of the world in which we exist. Therefore, Heidegger reserves the term “existence” for us—for our special way of Being, a way of Being in which our own Being is an issue for us. Unlike rocks, we are not frozen in a present moment and position—we essentially reach out from ourselves. We “exist” (from Latin ex-sistere, “to stand forth”) and “project” (from Latin pro-iacere, “to throw forward”) ourselves from a past heritage into a present world toward future possibilities.

Heidegger insists that we will never understand human beings (“Dasein” or “Being-there”) adequately if we treat them as things. His thoughts on Being are quite alarming in the present age, when we almost exclusively define our Being by our appearances, jobs, how much money we make, and things that we own.

April 20, 2010

Disappearance of the Social

Images that Alienate

Jean Baudrillard

Living in Abstract

French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) is associated with the study of post-modernism as the mode of consciousness of man after modernity. A major theme of Baudrillard’s thoughts on post-modernism is “the disappearance of the social”, that is, the disappearance of the social relations between people, and the meanings, significances, and values that they entail. In his thinking, we may have gone beyond the loss of the human self. The social relations between people have begun to disappear because humans have begun to disappear. Reality itselfi.e., what we have conventionally understood as realis in a process of disappearance. Post-modernism is a blurring of the boarder-line between humans and machines, a blurring of the line between reality and images. Post-modernism, in its fullest sense, is when machines, television sets, and computers unplug us, not the reverse. Baudrillard insists that we are witnessing the disappearance of the human, the social, and the real in the post-modern era. We are so enmeshed in this post-modern phenomenon that Baudrillard’s profound thoughts on this subject will not immediately penetrate the readers’ minds. In fact, some may even find his thoughts preposterous or just ordinary. Indeed, there is nothing extraordinary about this phenomenon anymore!

According to Baudrillard, in the post-modern world, the new reality is that which can be “simulated”. If reality cannot be simulated, then it is not real. This means that when an image is a copy, duplicate, reproduction, or simulation of what is real, then the image is construed more real than the reality it replicates. When what is real is captured in an image, then the image takes on a higher reality and a life of its own, independent from us. The image, which constitutes the new reality, simulates or imitates what we no longer deem as real. Baudrillard refers to this new reality as “hyper-reality” which has outrun reality. Is he telling us something about the pathological fascination with the “reality shows” on TV? Is there possibly a relation between this hyper-reality and the morbid American obsession with watching TV?

The aftermath of this paradigmatic hyper-reality is quite prolific. Blood is not real until we see it on a television screen or have it streamed to a computer monitor. Real, physical suffering is not real until we read about it in a magazine, hear about it on radio, see its images on a television screen or computer monitor. Actual suffering no longer evokes our pity or sympathy until it is editorialized, televised, or streamed. When we actually witness someone’s affliction out in a street, it often does not catch our attention as much as when we view it on the nightly news. For many people cybersex has already replaced actual sexual intercourse. The Facebook has replaced actual friendship with simulation of friendship on computer screens. Nowadays, political debates are simulated on television screens. Even shadowy images of presidential elections on television screens are more real than actual elections. Some even claim that George W. Bush did not actually win the second term presidential election in 2004, but that he merely won the simulated election on television screens, where images are more real and convincing. After all, such televised or streamed images are rendered more acceptable because these images reduce the complexity of our post-modern lives wherein one would be clueless as to what is really going on in the actual world if one does not watch television. The power of televised images is that they impose an order on the chaos of our everyday lives, making it more digestible and simpler to deal with. And, according to Baudrillard, that is where the danger lies. In one of his transcribed interviews, entitled “Baudrillard Live – Selected Interviews”, he stated:

“It is the disappearance of things that fascinates us. And for me the media are a place of disappearance. It is just as interesting as a place of production or a place of apparition. It is a place of disappearance; it is a place where meaning disappears, where significance, the message, the referent disappear. It is a way of making things circulate so quickly that they are made to disappear. And it fascinates us like a black hole. It is a place of disappearance. One is fascinated by the disappearance of things. And I think it’s much the same with politics, with the social, etc. Today I think it’s a society where we are haunted and fascinated by the disappearance of the social, by the disappearance of the political. But it’s a game, a big game. It can make a lot of things happen, but it’s no longer the Productions of things which interests us; production interests, but disappearance fascinates.”

Not surprisingly, nowadays children are socialized by and learn moral lessons from machines, computer games, and televised images rather than from their parents. Children are even more emotionally involved with their computer games than with their own parents. In fact, parents have delegated the task of raising their children to such simulated images seen on computer and television screens. Children do not seem willing or able to escape from computer games, movies, and television programs. Even adults are unable or unwilling to get away from television screens. These screens babysit our children when we are busy with other matters; they comfort us when we are in pain; they guide us when we are morally lost; they entertain us when we are bored; they sing to us soothing lullabies while we sleep at nights. If one misses one’s family, one can simply rent a family-oriented movie in order to simulate spending time with family, just the way we simulate friendship on the Facebook. These magical screens follow us wherever we go; these screens are on our cellular phones, iPods, inside our automobiles, on gas pumps at gasoline stations, at supermarkets, malls, airports, airplanes, day-care centers, schools, universities, hospitals, funeral homesthey are everywhere. I mean, everywhere! These screens will follow us from womb to tomb. They tell us what is worth living and dying for. In his “Dust Breeding”, Baudrillard stated:

“In this space, where everything is meant to be seen [on screens] . . . we realize that there is nothing left to see. It becomes a mirror of dullness, of nothingness, on which the disappearance of the other is blatantly reflected . . . . It also reveals the possibility that human beings are fundamentally not social. This space becomes the equivalent of a ‘ready-made’ just-as-is (telle quelle) transposition of an ‘everyday life’ that has already been trumped by all dominant models. It is a synthetic banality, fabricated in closed circuits and supervised by a monitoring screen.”

During the Gulf War of 1990, when the United States assaulted Iraq in order to have them withdraw from Kuwait, Baudrillard was asked to cover the war as a journalist on the ground in Iraq. Ironically, he decided to cover the war not where the war actually took place, but on CNNwhere the war was simulated and televised. During that war, even the Whitehouse was glued to CNN! The rationale underlying Baudrillard’s decision was that it was CNN that was ultimately going to tell us how the war was going to be carried out and who was going to win it.

During the Gulf War, there were reports of some U.S. soldiers saying that they received their best combat training as kids playing war games at arcades. A female soldier even related that she really did not get a feel for the war until she came back home and saw it on television. It is in this sense that Baudrillard points out that what is now considered real (i.e., the “hyper-reality”) is simply an image of what is real. Further, these images tend to go beyond and negate what is real. Hence, according to Baudrillard, in the Gulf War “the enemy disappeared” in the show business. He calls this the “ecstasy of communication” or of telecommunication, which is pure neural thrill, as in when children kill scary monsters in Xbox or Sony PlayStation games. Perhaps, such children are already being trained for more gruesome wars that are coming our way. Baudrillard wondered that in this highly simulated world where we are preoccupied with consumerism, video games, television programs, movies, and bigger-than-life imageswhat is left there to dream about other than playing another round of a game, watching another movie, another television show, and paying off our debts? Is there anything to live for when real life experiences no longer enchant us and have been replaced with cheap simulations of real life?

Nowadays, in the American society, if one is unable to simulate what is real, one will find living life quite difficult. For instance, if you are in retail business, you have to be able to simulate being polite to your customers. Heaven forbids if your true character bleeds through your simulation of being polite. The customers may get offended. However, as long as you fake politeness well, the customers will be pleased and you will get to keep your job and paychecks. In this nation, we value simulation (i.e., being fake) over being authentic; simulation is more real than real. Under the paradigm of this new simulated reality and the disappearance of social relations, we are no longer supposed to like each other, but to like “liking each other”! We are not to love a person, but to love “loving a person”. We no longer value being a good Christian, but we do value the “value of being a good Christian”. A simulated Christian does not love his enemy, but loves “loving his enemy”. It is all about behavioral simulations, virtualizing our behaviors. Virtual reality (sometimes dubbed “extreme reality”) has become more real than reality. In other words, we are preoccupied with abstract ideas which only imitate in thought the actions that these ideas represent. We live abstract lives, divorced from reality. It is all about simulating what used to be deemed real. This is a pathos of post-modernism, which has made us into poor imitations of human beings. As the Kierkegaardian proverb has it:

Once upon a time, there was a man so abstract from his own life that one morning he woke up and found himself dead!

Baudrillard insists that we have stopped being reasons of things, and things in form of images have taken on their own reasons. When capitalism promoted and reached a certain level of mass consumerism, consumer goods began to detach themselves from themselves and became living images as people detached themselves from their own concrete lives and became spectators of these abstract images. Hence, we show more emotion toward these images than toward people. Recently, I met a person who so diligently and paternally cared for his new iPhone that he purchased a leather jacket for his iPhone and a second jacket to protect the expensive leather jacket! So, his iPhone was protected by two covers. Upon further inquiry, I found out that he had no health insurance while his iPhone had one from AT&T! He treated his iPhone with more dignity than his own self. Such omnipresent images (Apple, BMW, Dior, Madonna, American Dream, and etc.) have powerfully alienated us from ourselves and others to the point of disappearance of the human, the social, and the real.

Baudrillard claims that our conventional conceptions of humanity, society, and reality have been in a process of disappearing. It may not be an overstatement that America leads the cultural trajectory of the world through the mass media, movie and music industries, commercial enterprises, and economic globalization that proliferate the germs of this phenomenon of disappearance around the globe. Perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisiswhich is said to have originated in the belly of greed here in the U.S.evinces this assertion. As it has been said, when the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold. The U.S. government, at least under President George W. Bush administration, had an allocated budget for the purpose of spreading “American values” around the globe via various channels of mass communication. Such values seem to be mercilessly spreading around the globe like a virus, devouring the line between real and unreal. The deficit of genuine life experiences that have not been sucked into the system of images on television screens is painfully real.

April 11, 2010

The Sickness unto Death

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

A Contemporary Interpretation of The Sickness unto Death

In his book The Sickness unto Death, existential thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) addresses an issue that is alarmingly relevant to the contemporary American society. He chillingly insists that, we all suffer from “despair”. (The word is etymologically derived from Latin word dēspērāre, meaning “without hope”, and the root word spērāre, “hope”, is etymologically related to Latin word spīritus, meaning “breath” or “spirit”. With reference to this, “despair” is expressive of “lack of spirit”.) Kierkegaard warns us,

“. . . [T]here is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself, . . . a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”

Stipulating that despair is lack of spirit, then what is “spirit”? According to Kierkegaard, the human “self” (possibly derived from Sanskrit word sva, meaning “one’s own”) is a synthesis of the “infinite” and the “finite”. What does that mean? Simply put, the self is a tension between “possibility” and “necessity”; the self is a relation between our desire for “freedom” and our recognition of the brutal “necessity” of our everyday existence which negates our ambitions. The self is this tensive relation “relating itself to itself”. Kierkegaard writes:

“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self.” (Bolds added for emphasis.)

“Still not a self” because the relation is still antithetical or is not achieved yet. This living and breathing contradiction or “misrelation” of the self that is not yet a self creates a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death”—which is “despair”. Kierkegaard states that despair, as the sickness of the self, takes three forms: (1) “in [unconscious] despair not to be conscious of having a self”, (2) “in [conscious] despair not to will to be a self”, and (3) “in [conscious] despair to will to be oneself”. In the book, Kierkegaard seems to suggest that the second form of despair is the most common. However, in our age, the first form of despair is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous, i.e., the despair that is unaware of being despair. Indeed, the book can be a rude awakening to those who think are immune to despair. In any case, it is important to recognize that for Kierkegaard despair is not something that a psychologist can cure us of it, for, in a strict sense, it is neither a mood, nor a psychological state. A psychologist cannot cure us of it because this despair constitutes the self; the self is this despairing relation; despair is our way of being; we are it!

Kierkegaard insists that in a particular sense the sickness unto death is not biological death. Conversely, the agony of this despair is specifically the “inability to die”. This despair is the hopelessness of not being able to die—even when we wish it! Suicide will not help this type of despair. Kierkegaard writes:

“Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger [i.e., despair as sickness of the spirit], we hope for death. When the danger [i.e., the despair] is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.”

When life becomes a bitter drink, then death begins to appear as a sweet medicine! What can one do when existing becomes unbearable within the framework of the second type of despair (i.e., “in [conscious] despair not to will to be a self”)? When the thorns of one’s soul rip through one’s flesh and skin at nights while asleep, what can one do? How does one kill oneself? The thought itself is utterly horrifying: the agonizing decision, the quivering squeeze, the excruciating pain, the nauseous blood, the cold silence, and the devastating news that invades the ears of those who care. An initial problem seems to be that one who wishes to kill oneself becomes more afraid, after premeditating on death and dying, of the physical pain that may precede death than the death itself, not to mention the psychological pain of abandonment of one’s ethical responsibilities toward others, in addition to one’s memories of the loved ones that may linger during the death-struggle that might be infinitesimally short or significantly long. It is unsettling when the anxiety of death itself becomes pregnant with an image of itself, reflecting on itself and, hence, engendering more pains and uncertainties. One would hope that suicide would put an end to additional possibilities of pain and uncertainty before departure. On the contrary, an eccentric facet of suicide is that it adds to the burden of already established pains and uncertainties that have pushed one to the edge. Kierkegaard writes, “. . . [D]eath is indeed the expression for the state of deepest spiritual wretchedness, and yet the cure is simply to die, to die to the world.” It is not suicide that kills one’s spirit, but self-pity, lack of courage, and loss of self-worth.

Nowadays, our consciousness is extensively shaped and framed by the tele-cyber-communication and the powerful images thrown at us by the mass media. In this highly televised, commercialized, and commodified culture in the United States, these images serve to psychologically condition us into particular ways of emoting, thinking, and behaving. The everyday, simulated images have become more real than what the images actually imitate. The late president Ronald Regan serves as an example in point. He was more of an image rather than an actual person. He was magnificent as an icon, and that was his public persona. What was important about him was his iconic significance. To the citizens, his televised image was more real than real. The same principle also applies to celebrities such as Madonna who has sold us not music per se, but an image. We have become accustomed to to be an image rather than an actual person. Adopting an image for oneself has become of more value than cultivating character. In our society, images are more valuable than real persons; images have gained higher realities than the things they simulate.

These images are extremely fashionable in a society where self-identity has become a matter of fashion. Under the current social malady, one is compelled to need something other than oneself in order to be oneself. If one lacks self-identity, he can buy one, for example, at a shopping mall. This is the despair that Kierkegaard refers to. Our identities are prepackaged and given to us by the commercial system that keeps spreading the same disease around the globe. Our contemporary mass culture is based on unreflected sensations, spectacles, images that are socially employed to mold us.

In this totally commercialized and commodified culture, it is not easy to know whether one has adopted a fashion or one has actually developed as an authentic person. Consider the all-too-common phenomenon whereby a person one day becomes an avid follower of Christ, then next day of Buddha, followed by becoming a member of a Kabbalah cult; and then at the end of the line, still feeling empty and unfulfilled, the person whimsically decides to make a visit to a local department store in order to purchase luxuries that render the person even more oblivious of her or his self-deficiencies. A person who is impulsively driven to this extreme to find a meaning in life, her or his condition is “sickness unto death”. To be in the situation wherein we are unable to die is no more or less than the cycle of our boring daily lives which are devoid of projects other than pleasing our employers, shopping, counting calories, losing weight, watching TV, and the like.

“Is despair”, Kierkegaard asks, “an excellence or a defect?” He replies, “Purely dialectically, it is both.” In a sense, for him, despair itself is not the problem, for it is, as it were, a structure of the self, built into the self. However, not overcoming the despair is the problem. Ironically, it is not healthy never to suffer the sickness of despair, and it is unhealthy not to overcome it. Kierkegaard writes, “The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal, and this superiority distinguishes him in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit.” Kierkegaard advises that to overcome despair and to become a self is a project, a difficult task that takes “passion” and commitment in the self reflecting on its own relation to itself.

“The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself. . . . To become oneself is to become concrete. But to become concrete is neither to become finite nor to become infinite, for that which is to become concrete is indeed a synthesis. Consequently, the progress of the becoming must be an infinite moving away from itself in the infinitizing of the self, and an infinite coming back to itself in the finitizing process. But if the self does not become itself, it is in despair, whether it knows that or not. Yet every moment that a self exists, it is in a process of becoming, for the self Κατα δυναμιν [in potentiality] does not actually exist, is simply that which ought to come into existence. Insofar, then, as the self does not become itself, it is not itself; but not to be itself is precisely despair.”

April 10, 2010

Modernity

A Characterization of Modernity

Modernity, like individualism, is a socio-politico-economic phenomenon that gradually began after the Middle Ages subsided and the Enlightenment values and promise of “progress” through reason, science, and technology began to propagate in Europe. (Caution should be taken that there are distinctions between the terms “modern age/era”, “modernity”, and “modernism”. While these terms are essentially inter-related, they are conceptually distinguished.) The shift that was caused after the atrophy of the Church and socio-economico-political institutions of the Middle Ages called for a new system to supersede the old in Europe.

Modernity is not a cutting-edge technology, state-of-the-art product, latest trend of some sort, or the like. Modernity is a paradigm shift in human thinking and human relations that ushered in the advent of modern science, technology, nation-states, money economy, capitalism, and industrialism in the Western societies. This shift in human thinking and relations produced unprecedented socio-economico-political conditions that have drastically restructured our lives. Fundamentally, modernity is our post-traditional way of being; modernity is the post-Medieval consciousness that has left no human institutions untouched in the Western societies. And, scholars are of the conviction that the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650)which created a dualism between mind and body, and had a purely mechanistic view of the universewas a zygote of this new consciousness.

This article is an attempt to briefly characterize the complex phenomenon of modernity through Max Weber’s concept of “disenchantment”, Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts of “passion” and “despair”, Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “death of God”, and Karl Marx’s concept of “alienation”.

Franz Kafka and Max Weber

§1. Disenchantment

Max Weber (1864–1920), a German sociologist and one of the first major scholars who systematically examined the phenomenon of modernity, suggested that the Middle Ages, with all its disquietude, was somehow enchanted (from Latin incantāre, i.e., in [“affected by”] + cantāre [“to sing”]; defined as “to attract and delight” or “to charm”). Notwithstanding all the discontent and cruelty extant in the Medieval era, Weber felt that generally there was something qualitatively human about the age. Life of a meager serf meant something in the grand scheme of things. Everything under the sun signified a purpose and had an aspect of sacredness. Or, to employ the eloquent terms coined by Martin Buber, “I-Thou”, as opposed to “I-It”, mode of relations characterized the human relations and the relation between man and nature. In contrast, Weber thought that the modern Western societies have lost, to borrow Buber’s concepts again, the “I-thou” mode of relations, which have been supplanted with the “I-It” mode of relating to one another and to the world of nature. There have been objectification and degradation of “thou” into “it”.

This is the “disenchantment” (and impersonalizing force) of the modernity, according to Weber. Fundamentally, what has taken place is that, quantitative—as opposed to qualitative—relations have become the dominant norms since the rise of science, nation-states, money economy, capitalism, and industrialism in the Western societies. According to Weber, this is a world where scientific understanding has primacy over belief, where technology is believed to do away with the socio-economic problems, and hence where social processes are instrumentally quantified (akin to physics quantifying the objective qualities of objects) and ratio-nalized toward desired goals. Accordingly, the modern consciousness has undermined the traditional values (which are not quantifiable). The decline of the traditional valueswhich previously accorded Medieval Europeans a sense of purpose and social order—called for a new set of values (hence, rules and procedures) to bring about a new social order. The modern life is infused with rules and procedures, which are often indifferently and apathetically followed machinelike.

One can consider how robotically the modern man, as depicted in Franz Kafka’s works, follows rules and procedures from the moment he wakes up every morning: conforming to his morning routines with a clock hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, dragging himself to the workplace where he is faced with additional rules and procedures, and then dealing with the impersonal, bureaucratic institutions that generally reject or sanction him if he does not conform to their particular set of rules and procedures. Weber’s understanding of modernity entails rationalization and bureaucratization of the modern lifestyles and social institutions. The modern consciousness relates to itself and to others by standardizing, proceduralizing, reifying, and quantifying them—making them predictable. Modernity is a state of being whereby life is principally and disenchantingly lived in terms of standards, procedures, quantities, and bureaucracies—many of which are blindly unperceptive or intentionally disregardful to the ever-changing human conditions.

It is important to understand modernity and the concept of “disenchantment” within a proper historical context. In this context, the roles of traditional values on the one hand and the development of the sciences and their revolutionary discoveries on the other hand are quite significant. According to philosopher W. T. Jones:

“For the men of the Middle Ages the world was created by a supremely good power for the discipline of man, with a view to his salvation. Since the medieval men believed that God had created everything for this purpose, they held that the way to explain anything was to show how it promotes this end. The result was that medieval science was teleological in form. And since, of course, the underlying purpose was that of the one supreme and totally good God, the medieval sciences all pointed beyond themselves to religion. The universe was a vast sacerdotal system: It had no meaning or value in itself; its importance lay in the role it played—partly symbol, partly stage-set—in the drama of man’s salvation. Everything meant something beyond itself in this religious drama. Nothing was simply what it was. A tree was not merely a tree, a bird was not merely a bird; a footprint in the sand was not merely a footprint—they were all signs, just as the particular footprint Robinson Crusoe saw was a sign to him that he was not alone on the island. And what was true of the rest of the created universe was true of man. He was not merely man; he was a child of God. And his supreme task was to get back into that right relation with God that his first parent had lost.

“Beginning in the Renaissance, beliefs gradually changed. The one supremely important vertical relationship of man to God, which absorbed all the attention of men of the Middle Ages, was eventually replaced by a network of horizontal relations connecting every individual to his social and physical milieu. For modem men, the good life no longer consists in achieving a right relation with God, but in effecting an efficient relation with one’s fellow men.

“In this respect the modern view is similar to the classical [i.e., classical Greece], but there are also important differences. For the classical mind, the universe, if not sacerdotal, was at least teleological. If the classical mind did not conceive of everything as worshiping God, it at least conceived of all things as subserving some purpose and aiming at some good. Hence, for the classical mind, as for the medieval, purpose was the primary mode of explanation. In contrast—and as a result of the success of the new physics, which was rigorously nonteleological in orientation—the modern mind became hostile to the use of purpose as an explanatory principle.

“The modern mind also came, eventually, to differ from both the medieval mind and the classical mind in its attitude toward values. It never occurred to the medieval mind that values might not be objectively real. Although it certainly occurred to the Greek Sophists that values are merely the ways individuals feel about things, Plato’s and Aristotle’s reaffirmation of objectivity was for the most part accepted. The fact that men of the classical period and the Middle Ages agreed that values are objectively real is connected, of course, with the teleological conception of the universe that they shared. If the purpose anything subserves gives it value, and if purposes are objective, values will be objective. Anything will be good (really good, apart from some individual’s feeling about it) insofar as it consciously or unconsciously realizes its purpose; anything will be bad insofar as it fails to accomplish its purpose. The same consideration also yields a hierarchy of goods, for values can be compared in terms of the relative height and significance of the purposes they subserve.

“It follows that, in abandoning the teleological conception of the universe, the modern mind abandoned this easy way of establishing the objectivity of value. Moreover, modern men did not merely abandon the teleological conception of the universe; gradually they substituted for it a conception of the universe that seemed incompatible with the objectivity of values. This is, of course, the conception of the universe as a vast set of facts—facts that are indifferent to men’s values, facts that no one planned with any end in view but that just happen to stand in the sorts of spatiotemporal relations that can be ascertained by the techniques of modern science.

“The role that scientific instruments came to play in the accession of factual knowledge had an important bearing on this development. Where would astronomy be without the telescope? biology without the microscope? But these instruments, which have led to the discovery of innumerable astronomical and biological facts, throw no light at all on values. When a scientist dissects a corpse in a laboratory, he finds no evidence of the courage or magnanimity the living man displayed. Nor do microscopes or telescopes reveal God or Freedom or immortality. As long as men believe that these instruments give them the whole truth about the universe, it is difficult for them also to believe that God, freedom, and immortality, courage, justice, and piety are objective realities. It is difficult, that is, for them not to assume that what the instruments reveal—the facts in their spatiotemporal relations—is reality, and that what the instruments do not reveal—the soul, the forms, and the values that classical and medieval minds conceived to be constituent elements in the universe—is merely subjective feeling.” (A History of Western Philosophy III, 2nd edition)

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard

§2. Passion and Despair

Danish philosopher Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had his own peculiar way of characterizing modernity (a term that might had been an anachronism in his time). He insisted that we lack “passion” (cf. Weber’s “disenchantment”) in our lives. The word “passion”—which is popularly mistaken for “obsession” or “fanaticism”—is etymologically derived from the Latin word patī, meaning “to suffer”, which is in turn derived from the Greek word páschein (πάσχειν), meaning “to suffer”, hence, “The passion of Christ”. Passion or lack thereof is a major theme in Kierkegaard’s philosophy. In his The Present Age, he writes:

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection [cf. Weber’s “rationalization”], without passion. . . . In fact, one is tempted to ask whether there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly. Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation.”

To emphasize the significance of passion, Kierkegaard makes a curious contrast between a Christian and a pagan in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. First, he portrays the Christian who formulaically and with great “objectivity” worships—as a matter of course—the one and only true God. Next, he depicts the pagan who inwardly and with “all the passion of infinity” worships—as a matter of infinite commitment—an idol that we know is undoubtedly false. Then, he inquires, “[W]here, then, is there more truth?” In a witty manner, he concludes, “The one prays in truth to God although he is worshiping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshiping an idol.” The essential distinction between the two men is that the Christian’s worship is a matter of what (i.e., quantitative/rationalized), while the pagan’s worship is a matter of how (i.e., qualitative/passionate). As is prevalent in the present age, the Christian lacks a “qualitative” state of being.

Kierkegaard construed the modern age as an overconfident age that thinks it knows it all. He felt the moderners’ complacency, overweening pride, and false sense of security—need to be threatened, for they, as he put it in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “have forgotten what it means to exist”. He contended, “[E]xistence, if one becomes conscious of it, involves passion.”

Kierkegaard also signalizes the modern age with “despair”. In his The Sickness unto Death, he portentously warns:

“[T]here is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself. . . . a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”

Moderners, Kierkegaard thought, suffer from despair even when they are not aware of it. Later, in the book, he idiosyncratically expresses that actual despair is the sickness in which one experiences “the hopelessness of not even being able to die”—even when one wishes it! In a very profound but discombobulating manner, he writes:

“This concept, the sickness unto death, must, however, be understood in a particular way. Literally it means a sickness of which the end and the result are death. . . . [However,] Christianly understood, death itself is a passing into life. Thus, from a Christian point of view, no earthly, physical sickness is the sickness unto death, for [physical] death is indeed the end of the [physical] sickness, but [physical] death is not the end [from a Christian point of view]. If there is to be any question of a sickness unto death in the strictest sense, it must be a sickness of which the end is death and death is the end. This is precisely what despair is.

“But in another sense despair is even more definitely the sickness unto death. Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.”

The preceding passage epitomizes the fall of the human spirit or the lack of passion in the modern age. The modern state of being is despair, for what is worse than death? What is worse than forgetting how to exit? Ironically, the cure for this despair, metaphorically speaking, is to die!

Friedrich Nietzsche

§3. Death of God

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) dramatically characterized modernity by his provocative and often misunderstood concept of “death of God”. In a picturesque aphorism, entitled “The Madman”, Nietzsche, with an acute sense of despair and hope, writes:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ —As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? . . . Thus they yelled and laughed.

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? . . . Are we not plunging continually? . . . Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? . . . Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“‘How shall we comfort ourselves . . . What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? . . . Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’

“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; . . . ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. . . . Deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.’

“. . . ‘What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’” (Gay Science, book three, 125)

“Death of God”, either as a concept or as an event (metaphorically presented), has far-reaching, inexhaustible repercussions and implications in many spheres of human endeavor: values, morality, Christianity, culture, society, economics, politics, history, and so on. The death of God intimates the death of our belief in God or even the impossibility of belief in God (either as a conscious or subconscious impossibility).

“Who are we anyway? If we simply called ourselves . . . godless, or unbelievers, or perhaps immoralists, we do not believe that this would even come close to designating us: We are all three in such an advanced stage that one . . . [can hardly] comprehend how we feet at this point. Ours is no longer the bitterness and passion of the person who has torn himself away and still feels compelled to turn his unbelief into a new belief, a purpose, a martyrdom. We have become cold, hard, and tough in the realization that the way of this world is anything but divine; even by human standards it is not rational, merciful, or just. We know it well: the world in which we live is ungodly, immoral, ‘inhuman’; we have interpreted it far too long in a false and mendacious way, in accordance with the wishes of our reverence, which is to say, according to our needs.” (Gay Science, book five, 346)

Nietzsche’s concept of death of God is inextricably intertwined with his diagnosis of the fundamental problem of the modern era, namely, the “crisis of values”. The death of God is expressive of the fact that, the traditional values are on their way out. He was convinced that the collapse of traditional values will lead to despair, devastation, and “nihilism”.

“The greatest recent event—that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. . . . But in the main one may say: The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means—and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our . . . morality. This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm . . . is now impending. . . .” (Gay Science, book five, 343)

The death of God is a multifaceted, modern phenomenon that has been unfolding overtly and subterraneanly, with far-reaching outcomes for the entire Western civilization. For Nietzsche, the “death of God” is pregnant with unending significances and consequences, as they have been dismally unfolding and will continue to unfold in our time and thereafter. How much has to fall now that the foundation of Western values is in decay?

Karl Marx

§4. Alienation

Although German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) may not had utilized his concept of “alienation” to characterize modernity (a term that may had been an anachronism in his time), there would had been no other way if he actually had intended to do so. “No other way” because capitalism and the ensuing alienation, as upshots of consciousness of modernity, were two of his burning issues. Marx was a keen observer of how the Industrial Revolution and capitalism radically changed our lives and the course of history. He believed that the modern economic relations have created a battleground where everyone pursues her or his own private interests. This is a war of all against all, not excluding the subtle pecuniary/material tensions existing between family members.

Let us consider the following scenario, a scenario that is a ubiquitous reality in the United States. Consider an average American worker, who works one or two jobs that are often monotonous, meaningless, and self-humiliating—although the worker may not be conscious, as is commonly the case, of his own woeful situation. The moment he leaves home and hits the road to go to work, the war of all against all nauseatingly manifests itself right there on the road! While at work, he has to deal with workplace conditions that are often hostile and dehumanizing. So, he grows weary and numb at work. Since his job is the principal source of his livelihood, he is chained to the job, which, by and large, pays just enough (i.e., subsistence wages) to keep him alive (if profitable) and to spur him to return to work. His dehumanization, self-humiliation, and lack of self-respect are what he pretends not know about himself, so he grows numb. Inasmuch as he is not able to support himself and his family without the job, the job—whether he likes it or not—defines, regulates, and proceduralizes his life both in and outside of the workplace. Unavoidably, he will be socially defined by his job and income level. Since labor is commonly valued by the wage it makes, the less money he makes the less his life is valued. After leaving the workplace with a sense of emptiness and unfulfillment, do you suppose he will be in a favorable spirit to go home and meaningfully interact with his spouse and children? In all likelihood, his spouse is already experiencing the same wretched conditions. So, for dinner the couple, feeling physically and mentally drained, expediently resort to buy fast food for everyone rather than preparing a healthy meal. Hence, the poor labor conditions of the couple, which is the same labor conditions under which millions of Americans find themselves, pave the way toward the degradation of their psychological and physical health, for which the healthcare industry is awaiting with open arms! Later, after watching their favorite television programs, the couple may suddenly feel that they can find a sense of fulfillment, or even a sense of identity, by going to a mall and shop. Tragically enough, there are those who think that shopping is a great “therapy”, which is in fact a poor substitution for the happiness they seek. As long as the legal, political, and economic structures of capitalism keep the working class uneducated, depressed, and spiritually impoverished, the shopping therapy—and the ensuing consumer debts—will continue to turn the wheels of U.S. economy which is significantly based on the senseless consumption of goods and services.

Here, my point is that, as Marx thought, our present economic conditions (of which the labor conditions are an integral part) create a social environment that the more one participates in it—the less human one becomes. As he expresses it in his Paris Manuscripts:

“Money . . . transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy.”

In the case of the American worker and his spouse, their jobs—or, more generally, the prevalent politico-economic conditions—deprives them of their health, self-identity, and meaningful relationship with one another, with their children, and with their coworkers. In his Manifesto, Marx wrote that the capitalists as “leaders of whole industrial armies” have overturned the traditional human relationships of the feudal age, leaving no other relationship “between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Furthermore, under capitalism, the institution of family itself, along with its traditional values, have been degraded to a mere pecuniary/economic affair, wherein members of family relate to one another via materialistic values. In addition, “family values” have mendaciously become a tool in the hands of politicians to arouse fervor and to manipulate the masses. As Marx puts it, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . . .” Since in capitalism capital is of utmost value, other values—such as friendship, love, marriage, family, decency, mercy, honesty, fairness, justice, truth and so on—become subservient to the value of capital.

Marx fundamentally construed humans as adventurous and creative beings, with faculties geared toward externalizing their creativity through productions of cultural artifacts, such as tools, buildings, artworks, literature, science, and et cetera. However, under the modern conditions, specifically under capitalism, laborers’ work products have become alien to them because, according to Marx, their productive activities are done in servitude to the money-God, rather than in serving their own human potentials and fulfilling their own creative nature. Therefore, per Marx, the history of human creative production has been a history of alienation from our creative nature. In his essay entitled “The Jewish Question”, he writes:

“Money is the jealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand. Money dethrones all the gods [cf. Nietzsche’s “death of God”] of man and turns them into a commodity. Money is the universal, independently constituted value of all things. It has therefore deprived the whole world, both the world of man and nature, of its own value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and his being. This alien being rules him and he worships it.”

For Marx, the modern commercial world is a religion of money worship, which disunites and alienates members of society, including family members, from one another. In accordance with his Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844, human alienation takes on four forms:

1. Alienation from work products: Capitalism alienates workers from their work products, which exist as things estranged from the workers who create them, and which also exist as objects of pleasure for somebody else.

2. Alienation from productive activities: The money mania of capitalism alienates the workers from their productive activities—activities which are turned into “forced labor” because the activities of the workers are not of personal interest to them, who are compelled to perform them just to keep alive.

3. Alienation from human qualities: The modern money economy alienates the workers from their human and social qualities, such as love, sympathy, kindness, leisure, and et cetera.

4. Alienation from fellowmen: At last, capitalism alienates the workers from their fellowmen. Marx called this “the estrangement of man from man”, whereby we all compete against each other.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.