Why ‘IMAGINING OTHER’? – Part 2.

These notes may help to explain my web pages!!!

 

Thoughts from various sources on: The Other, Reason, the Imagination, Intuition etc.

 

In short:

 

new ways of seeing…

 

                                                                                                                                                                                    Links:            Imagining Other Part 1 (what is ‘imagining other’?)

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Imagining Other Part 3: 'Alternatives'

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Notes on William Blake

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Books for 'Why Imagining Other'?

                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Index page for this website.

 

Contents:

 

1. The Arts:

1.1 # Simon Armitage on poetry

1.2 # Daniel Barenboim on music, society, the other

1.3 # John Berger: Ways of Seeing          

1.4 # J.D. Salinger (and ‘authenticity’)

1.5 # Hanif Kureishi (on revolts; and on hatred of ‘the other’)

1.6 # Nietzsche versus Kant - in Ibsen

1.7 #poetry (Seamus Heaney on the life-affirming aspect etc)

1.8 # John Donne quote (the therapeutic effect of poetry)

1.9 # Thomas Hardy

1.10 # music

1.11 # Ursula LeGuin and fantasy literature

 

2. Nature & Ecology:

2.1 # Ecology

2.2 # Humans & their place in nature (animal poetry, Narnia)

2.3 #animal rights

2.4 # Richard Mabey

 

3. The Other:

3.1 # David Grossman: Jews and 'the other'

3.1.2 The Talmud on the value of an individual life

3.2 # Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Other

3.3 # The 'Lucifer Effect' (how ‘the other’ can be demonised)

3.4 # Richard Flanagan: The Unknown Terrorist

 

4. Philosophy and religion (topics in alphabetical order): (notes on Simon Critchley and other recent reading to follow...)

 

4.1 Buddhism #buddhism

4.2 Capra # Fritjof Capra: taoism and masculine/feminine

4.3 Marxism # Response to Giles Fraser on Marxism, Religion, Modernity

4.4 Ricoeur # Philosophy and Paul Ricoeur

4.5 Wittgenstein # Ludwig Wittgenstein (words and ‘seeing’)

 

5. Miscellaneous Topics:

 

# Miscellaneous Topics: index 

 

5.1 aboriginal view of the world;

5.2 ‘truth’ (Julian Baggini);

5.3 ‘the other’, and ‘social contagion’ [– link];

5.4 local (urban) ‘life-worlds [– reference to follow up];

5.5 Richard Sennett;

5.6 happiness (Layard);

5.7 how babies learn (Alison Gopnik and Graham Music);

5.8 psychoanalysis and love;

5.9 Nicholas Maxwell [link only];

5.10 Koestler and Benjamin;

5.11 Robert #Irwin;

5.12 magic (Marina Warner)

5.13 E.O. Wilson.

 

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1. The Arts:

 

1.1 Simon Armitage: is a poet whose work I like very much, (added note, Aug 2012: I’ve found a lot of it difficult as well!) and who writes especially well about the point of poetry. His recent article in The Guardian sums up what I believe about poetry as a means to express one’s place in the world:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/12/poetry-should-be-subversive?INTCMP=SRCH – see also Michael Rosen’s comments to the effect that some children will be simply unable to learn a poem by heart: where will this emphasis leave them?

 

Profile in Guardian Journal Tues 26th May 2015: raises the issue about poetry that most bothers me – the lack of people who care about it, and the tendency on some people’s part to think that if it’s accessible it must be crap (!!)

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/26/simon-armitage-making-poetry-pay

 

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1.2 Daniel Barenboim on the power of music:

 

Susan Tomes in a review of Barenboim’s book Everything is Connected (Guardian 23.08.08) identifies the following ideas that resonate (to use a musical metaphor!) for me:

- thought and study must go hand in hand with intuition when working on music: it is not true that too much analysis will destroy the intuitive quality of a performance – ‘rational activity is not only possible but absolutely necessary in order for the imagination to have free rein’

- Barenboim traces the idea of a link between understanding and freedom to Spinoza… [I need to follow this up!!!]

- as Nadia Boulanger said: “the ideal musician should think with the heart and feel with the intellect’

- Barenboim refers frequently to ‘apparently opposing qualities which for him are constructive partners: choice and limitation, emotion and rationality, leading voices and subversive accompaniments…’

- this is an idea that he found was strengthened by his acquaintance with Edward Said – for whom parallels between ideas, topics and cultures can be of a paradoxical nature, not contradicting but enriching each other’

- his own process goes from a first intuitive reaction, through a primarily rational stage of understanding the anatomy of the piece – observing the relationships between all the different elements of the music; this is only a step to a real understanding of the music – when he knows the music in the most detailed way he is able to ‘relive the first encounter, this time, however, with a kind of conscious naivete, which allows me to unfold the piece as if the music is being composed as I play it’

- on the idea of ‘paradoxical affinities’ which links Barenboim with Said, he is opposed to isolationism, and points out that Spinoza also taught that ‘belief in just one view can totally sap one’s strength’ – and in music this means that there ‘simply are no independent elements’

- ‘music could be a model for society – it teaches us the importance of the interconnection between transparency, power and force’

- working with young Arabs and Israelis in the East-West Divan ‘they discover that the Other is not a monster, but a vulnerable human being like themselves’.

 

[I am reminded of John Gray in Enlightenment’s Wake, which I am reading currently (with some difficulty!) where he writes of ‘agonistic liberalism’…]

 

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1.3 John Berger.

 

Another writer whose relationship to the world seems to me to be right, is John Berger. His television series, and the 1972 book Ways of Seeing, influenced me enormously. In a recent interview (The Guardian, G2 03.04.12 – 40 years after the broadcasts) he says the aim of the series of programmes was threefold: to explore how the wider availability of works of art (e.g. reproduced in books) had changed the way people see art; secondly ‘the view of women’ and the ‘male gaze’ – things that were not talked about on the BBC at the time (though feminists were discussing these issues); finally the programmes examined the spread of what he called ‘publicity’ – ‘art and religion... [are] used to encourage the buying of commodities’. I was particularly struck by his exposing the powers of persuasion in ‘publicity’. I remember also the critique of the hidden social content of art – which reveals itself when the art-work’s context is taken into account. For example, the elaborate and expensive-looking frames that showed off the wealth and status of the owners or commissioners of the paintings. Works of art in the 18th and 19th centuries became a means of displaying social status... Again, they are commodities and their real value is lost (I would argue) because of this.

 

Sean O’Hagan, interviewing Berger (The Observer, 03.04.05) praised his “clarity and compassion.” At the point in time when Barthes and the French structuralists were all the rage, his voice stood out “absolutely direct, practical and clear. It was his clarity and, of course, his compassion, that… has stayed with me ever since.”  In the same piece (I think it was!) Susan Sontag says of him: “not since Lawrence has there been a writer who offers such attentiveness to the sensual world with responsiveness to the imperatives of conscience.”

 

His novel G won the Brooker prize, and he shocked many by criticising Booker McConnell for their historical role in trading in the West Indies, announcing that he would give half the prize money to the Black Panthers.

 

Berger went to live in France – perhaps to get away from the hostility of critics and of those on the left who did not accept his individual approach: his novel A Painter of Our Time, 1956, was interpreted as defending the Russians use of tanks against the Hungarians. Yet, he points out, in 1968 he was in Prague delivering messages of support to Dubcek. But his main purpose was to live among those (ordinary peasants etc) that he wanted to portray, but felt he didn’t really know (see A Seventh Man). His dinner-table is –like him – democratic: his friend Henri Cartier Bresson would be seated next to the local plumber. Another friend is Sebastiao Salgado, the photographer, who also chronicles people who would otherwise go unrecorded. 

 

He says little about himself, but agrees that he is a receptor for other people’s experiences, that he “can very easily, without even choosing to do it, enter the life of another. Or, to put it in a more modest and accurate way, [it is easy] for that life to enter mine.”

 

He adds that “What seems to have been abandoned of late, and what is absolutely fundamental to all we have talked about, is the notion of solidarity. And it is not only to gain something that we should seek solidarity, because solidarity, in itself, is a meaningful quality, that is to say, a quality that gives meaning to life. So I hope it’s there in my work.” 

 

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1.4 J.D. Salinger – and ‘authenticity’

 

A piece by Charles McGrath, G2 02/01/09, ponders over why Salinger went silent, and what the different stories about the Glass family (and especially Seymour) really signify. (The character of Seymour – who kills himself in a short story written in 1948, but whose life is explored in other works – notably as a precocious 7-year  old in the 25,000 word letter called ‘Hapworth’ and published in the New York Times but never as a book – appears in several versions, among which readers have found ‘discrepancies’).

 

The Glass family seem to be products of the ‘60s (‘spouting a certain amount of sentimental mysticism’), the young Seymour with his confusion over his identity seems to be ‘a projection of his creator’ [not just a typical if precocious young boy?] - and Salinger (like the young Seymour) seems fixated with ‘the difference between “phoniness” and authenticity’ – a fixation, says McGrath, that ‘has a twilight, ‘50s feeling about it. It is no longer news, and probably never was.’

 

Thus – it seems to me – the whole existentialist movement is dismissed!! But is this justified perhaps? [The thought is close to another recently encountered idea about adolescence…]

 

On the other hand, McGrath goes on to talk of ‘the unsolvable problem of ego and self-consciousness, of how to lead a spiritual life in a vulgar, material society’ as if this is the same issue… and the piece ends by saying that Salinger was very good at registering ‘the humour and pathos of false sophistication…’  - again, this is not the same as the problem of ‘authenticity’ is it? Except on a superficial level…

 

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1.5 Hanif Kureishi (G2 300609) makes a strange point while talking about his second novel: The Black Album (1993) – recently made into a film - and about one of its themes: the desire for revolutionary change – specifically the ‘islamo-fascists’ who want to bring about a ‘new, pure world’. He says this was not unlike the attitudes in the ‘60s and ‘70s – almost everyone he knew wanted the overthrow of capitalism – the ‘blasphemy and dissent’ of William Burroughs through to the Sex Pistols – was a ‘blessed thing’ – but ‘mixed in with this rhetoric [was] a strong element of puritanism and self-hatred. There was a desire for the masochism of obedience and self-punishment, something illustrated not only by the Taliban but by all revolts.’

 

Surely not all revolts???

 

Interesting that Kureishi goes on to describe how in the novel, ‘hatred of the Other is an effective way of keeping his [Shaihid’s] group [of Taliban-style radicals] together and moving forward. To do this, he has to create an effective paranoia. He must ensure that the idea of the Other is sufficiently horrible and dangerous to make it worth being afraid of.’  The character (Shahid) also discovers that, if, along with mythology, religions are among man’s most important and finest creations – with God being perhaps his greatest idea of all – Shahid also learns how corrupt and stultifying these concepts can become.’

 

Islamic fundamentalism, says Kureishi ‘came to the west in the year that other great cause, Marxist-communism, disappeared. In the late ‘80s something had begun to stir that has had a profound effect on our world, and which we are still trying to come to terms with…

 

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1.6 Nietzsche vs. Kant, in Ibsen:

Toril Moi (on The master Builder by Ibsen, G 04.12.10) seems to agree that, as ‘the Norwegian critic Frode Helland has suggested .. Hilde is a Nietzschean character: brimful of vitality, aggressively sexual, she pursues her own dreams of power and glory, in contrast to Mrs. Soldness’s Kantian insistence on duty.’   She goes on ‘Ibsen can hardly have been unaware of his Danish friend Georg Brandes’s 1890 essay Aristocratic Radicalism, the first book on Nietzsche in any language.’ Soldnes himself is ‘part Nietzschean superman, part guilt-ridden Christian slave soul…’

 

[does N vs K reflect the ‘necessary conflict’ Freud posited (Thomas Nagel, NY Review of Books, 04.12.10) ‘between the conditions of happiness and the conditions of civilisation’? ]

 

The play also involves characters who never wholly accept reality, and the audience is not sure how much of what they say happened is real, and how much is fantasy.

 

Hilde (like Hedda) reminds Moi ‘of the brilliant young women of the 1890s analysed by Freud and Breuer: Anna O and, above all, Dora…

 

Book: Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon (Princeton University Press, 2016) – reviewed in NS 22nd July 2016 by Gavin Jacobson. Nietzsche’s sister undoubtedly twisted his ideas and used them to support anti-Semitism and Nazism, but his views were more complicated. He wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). He had a theory of the state: it originated in conquest, and the ruler establishes hierarchy. But he believed that, as ‘God was dead’ the state had no longer a self-evident foundation of morality and would also die. He saw democracy as the victory of the slave mentality (represented by the dark-skinned) over the Aryan master race. (Repellent, as Jacobson says).

However, he also foresaw privatisation, how democracies could become aristocracies or (?) misarchies (opposition to any form of domination). He explored the nature of wage labour etc.

But he also saw that nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity could corrupt societies. He opposed Bismarck’ power politics (of blood and iron) with his own ‘great politics’ where Europe would have a unified cultural elite (by mixing Prussian offices and Jewish financiers (!)... ). 

 

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1.7 Poetry: Seamus Heaney (quoted by Colm Toibin, G 21.08.10):

‘When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre promotes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of over-life, and rebels at limit.’

 

‘The vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative...’ (all this against the view of e.g. Larkin in Aubade, where life is a preparation for extinction – also against Yeats’s oscillation between life as cornucopia and life as empty shell).

 

In Human Chain there is a struggle between lacrimae rerum (/lament) and the consolations of poetry (the search for comfort in images), involving memory.

 

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1.8 John Donne (quoted in Introduction to the Metaphysical Poets, Pelican, edited by Helen Gardner, p 18), from The Triple Foole:

 

‘I thought, if I could draw my paines,

Through Rimes vexation, I should them allay,

Griefe brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,

For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.’

 

- the concentrated form of metaphysical poets’ verse helped to convey emotions more effectively. This is an excellent expression of why I write what verse I do… 

 

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1.9 Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas – and ‘the road less traveled…’:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jul/29/robert-frost-edward-thomas-poetry?INTCMP=SRCH

 

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1.10 Music:

(i) From review of biography of Alan Lomax (The Man who recorded the world, by John Szwed) – review by Richard Williams, G 080111: Lomax says of folk music: “Folklore may prove to be, not a romantic and colourful ragbag of the discarded and outworn ideas of humanity, but one of the wellsprings of the democratic attitudes that have in the past two centuries begun to make for a more equitable life for all mankind upon this planet.”

           

He also says: “The primary function of music is to remind the listener that he belongs to one certain part of the human race, comes from a certain region, belongs to a certain generation. The music of your place is a quick and immediate symbol for all the deepest emotions the people of your part of the world share.” (Written in 1945). Other books on/by Lomax are referred to in the article.

 

(ii) Interview with Sinead O’Connor, by Cole Moreton from booklet of interviews with women, Independent 2008… Latest album is Sean-Nos Nua, i.e. old-style made new, songs from the traditional canon. Includes Molly Malone, a ghost story… Sinead felt when she heard a song by Mary Black, that there was an extra voice, a ghost, behind the voice. “These songs can be helpful… There is something beautiful about the fact that all the people in them are dead and they’re all still fine, and they still talk to you.” When singing she has to move her personality aside and operate like a medium, tuning into the energy of whoever wrote the song, and let that person use her voice, eyes, mouth…

 

Sean-nos singers also talk of abair amhran, i.e. letting the song speak through the singer…

 

Freud said the Irish were the only people who cannot be analysed. Irish people live in what we consider a magical little world, where psychic things exist.

 

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1.11 June 2009: Fantasy literature:

 

From a piece on Ursula LeGuin (Obs 140609, by Tobias Hill):

 

- she aims to blur the boundary between fantasy and reality: “For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual but it is true.” She is a ‘social novelist’ ‘an author who looks askew at her own time and place through the use of alternative histories and futures.’ ‘Lavinia (her latest novel) is the story of individuals within society and thereby the story of society itself.’  [- and yet, something is not quite right here, I feel: since ‘society’ is too loose/vague? Don’t we need to acknowledge institutions, norms, and so on… as having a special existence?] 

 

 

2. Nature and Ecology:

 

2.1 Ecology:

 

Ecology, it seems to me, teaches us that our relationship with the natural world needs to be a harmonious, sustainable one. This may be for self-interested material reasons (to avoid climate catastrophe), or because we believe we will feel more at peace with ourselves, or simply because we wish to preserve the environment and our children. See also The Environment (in notes on Corporate Social responsibility).

 

Madeleine Bunting (Guardian 30.07.07) writes of several books that belong to a “new genre of writing” that “puts centre stage the interconnections between nature and human beings.”

 

In Findings, 2004, Kathleen Jamie writes about Scottish landscapes and the wildlife there. Richard Mabey, in Nature Cure, writes of how love of nature helped cure his depression. Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (Aug. 2007) also describes a British landscape that is full of riches. In Crow Country, Mark Crocker shares his enthusiasm for crows, and their impact on his life, and our impact on them, so as to portray “a relationship in which human beings are as much part of nature as any so called wildlife.” Roger Deakin, in Wildwood (June 2007) and his earlier Waterlog study in detail particular aspects of our natural environment, “taking part in the experience of things” – and have become cult hits.

 

Above all, these books suggest (Bunting says) that “we should cultivate a patient attentiveness in order to appreciate our place, as just one species, in a vast reach of space and time”. She notes, too, that many of these writers keep a stone or pebble, millions of years old, to remind them of the age and evolution of the earth, and perhaps to put into some perspective our place in it?

 

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2.2 Humans’ relation with nature:

 

(i) John Burnside writes, NS 20/8/12 of nature poetry, and the (increasingly rare) experience of encountering wild animals which poets have often celebrated: http://www.newstatesman.com/2012/08/call-wild. Have we lost the ‘common stamp of creatureliness that other animals have retained’? – this is suggested by Robert Frost in ‘Two look at two’: “I doubt if you’re as living as you look”. 

 

(ii) Funnily enough, John Gray in the same issue, reviewing Rowan Williams’ book The Lion’s World: a journey into the heart of Narnia, makes a similar point... The Narnia books are an exploration of the place of humankind in the scheme of things, which is also what Williams has written about. Williams argues that monotheism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint – Aslan is a lion and a symbol of divinity. As Williams puts it: ‘human beings are always already embedded in their relations to the non-human world’. “To be human is to be with the non-human world, even to be for the non-human world.” This viewpoint, and Narnia’s talking beasts, free the mind from the world-view in which humans are set apart and then given the special ability of rationality in order to subjugate and remodel the world.

http://www.newstatesman.com/2012/08/beyond-wardrobe-door.

 

Yet there must be other ways of counteracting a narrowly anthropocentric view of the world than resorting to monotheism?! Animism for a start – where there are spirits in all things... And if one doesn’t believe in the Adam and Eve story then one is already free from the ‘view in which humans are set apart and then given the special ability of rationality in order to subjugate and remodel the world’.

 

(iii) Not sure whether I agree with the first part of the quotation from Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (in Patrick Barkham article on nature reserves, Guardian 25.8.12... but the rest is good, and thought-provoking. (Is my own trouble that I try to go too wide?)

“All great civilisations are built on parochialism... To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

The article is at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/aug/24/blakeney-point-coastal-nature-reserve-centenary and deals especially with Blakeney Point.

 

(iv) In ‘Kith: The riddle of the Landscape’ by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton) - reviewed by Alexander Linklater Observer 28.04.13 - there is a ‘lament for the English countryside and an expression of a very English Romanticism.’  The book raises the question whether our chronic estrangement from nature is responsible for our children’s woes?

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/28/kith-riddle-childscape-griffiths-review

 

But Linklater is sceptical of Griffith’s ‘dotty navel-gazing’, when she says she felt in very early childhood no boundary between herself and nature – ‘Before a mirror had meaning... I remember nature as if it were inside me. Birds sang and I heard it inside. It snowed. I snowed...’  Linklater says this is evidence of ‘a reactionary ideology of all childhood.’ I’m not so sure: ‘Before a mirror had meaning’ refers to such an early stage of life that it is hard to refute the claim (and I for one have no means of refuting what she felt given my lack of early memories!). On the other hand, at the earliest stage of life a child surely has no boundary between itself and its mother – isn’t the physical world more of a threat than a part of the child? Linklater also quotes Wordsworth on the ‘unrelenting agency’ of human consciousness, and argues that if this is followed to its logical conclusion then there are no boundaries between consciousness and everything we are conscious of. The distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘synthetic’ breaks down. Consciousness is part of nature too.

 

So the claim may not make sense, but how is it reactionary? Linklater’s conclusion is that children are products of biology and adaptive – they ‘can mould themselves to any of the extraordinary variegations in human society and territory.’  True, but, as (if I understand him rightly) Isaiah Berlin argues (in The Crooked Timber of Humanity): along with the extraordinary variety (plurality) of human societies and cultures there has to be some commonality – otherwise (my own words now) why should we tolerate differences (rather than striving to eliminate them)? Conversely, if there is only one human ‘truth’ then we do have a right to try to eliminate anyone who doesn’t agree with our truth – and how could humans live with this?

 

Note: the book also blames the 18th century enclosures for ‘curtailing the use of common land and suffocating the true spirit of childhood.’ (See How enlightened was the Enlightenment - ch 4 – section 3.2) 

 

2.3 Animal rights: “We increase our own dignity when we increase the dignity of others” [= other living things] (*) - and I would add: we reduce our dignity when we reduce the dignity of others.

 

(*) quote from Antoine Goetschel – lawyer and ‘animal advocate’ for Zurich.

Switzerland has very tough animal rights laws… see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/05/lawyer-who-defends-animals - article by Leo Hickman).

 

2.4 Richard Mabey: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/18/richard-mabey-defence-nature-writing an excellent piece, in reply to

a piece by Steven Poole: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/06/nature-writing-revival.

 

Mabey quotes Jonathan Bate, in The Song of the Earth: ‘the dream of deep ecology will never be realised on earth, but our survival as a species may be dependent on our capacity to dream it in the work of our imagination.’

 

2.5 John Ruskin: artist Alex Hamilton creates ‘cyanotypes’ (placing objects on photographic paper and letting the sun draw out the image). His latest work uses plants found at Glenfinlas, where Ruskin tried to get Millais to understand his view of nature. For Ruskin: ‘To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, religion, all in one.’ We need to get inside nature and revere it – and this is a moral activity. Brian Logan (Guardian 21.06.10) says Ruskin wanted to reclassify natural forms according to their ‘life energy’ (and Hamilton’s work is similar). Logan says: ‘Ruskin’s ideas about the interconnectedness of the natural world, and our responsibilities towards it, couldn’t be more relevant today.’  He wants visitors to come to Glenfinlas – this is about ‘stepping quietly into the landscape, making a connection with the place.’

 

See also pp17socialism since Marx 2 (incomplete notes).

 

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3. The Other:

 

3.1 David Grossman and ‘the other’:

 

The way Jews were regarded as not even human by the Nazis was recently driven home to me by David Grossman, author of the novel: See Under: Love. In the Guardian (15.09.07) he tells the story of the murder of the Polish Jewish author Bruno Schulz: “In the (Drohobycz) ghetto during the war, there was an SS officer who exploited Schulz and compelled him to paint murals in his home. An adversary of this officer, a Nazi officer himself, who was involved in a dispute with him over a gambling debt, happened to meet Schulz on the street. He drew his pistol and shot Schulz dead, to hurt [the other officer]… He then went to his rival and told him: “I killed your Jew.”  “Very well,” the officer replied, “now I will kill your Jew.”

 

For Grossman this shows the reduction of individuals to “interchangeable” parts of “some mechanical system” – “an accessory” that can be “replaced with another.” Whereas for him, everyone has an “indestructible… essence, a spark of uniqueness, the core of his selfhood.” (In the Jewish tradition this is a small bone called the luz, located at the tip of the spine.)  We must recognise and preserve this essential uniqueness of the individual – otherwise we might fall into the Nazi trap again, where people become mere statistics.

 

The added irony is that in Schulz’s own writings “every sliver of reality is full of personality” and “each and every entity… has its own personality and essence.”

 

The other thing we must do, Grossman believes, is realise how we have cut ourselves off from all the suffering “others” in the world – how, “intellectually and emotionally, we manage to detach the causal relationship between, for example, our economic affluence – in the sated and prosperous western countries – and the poverty of others”.  For Grossman this is most likely to happen in a world where we become ourselves part of a “mass” – “when I stop formulating my own choices and the moral compromises I make”.  “The language of the masses is intended to liberate the individual from responsibility for his actions.”

 

The death of Schulz reflects just this encounter between one individual and a “mass language” – the language in which the horrific sentences quoted above can be formulated: “I killed your Jew.”  “Very well, now I will kill your Jew.”

 

With Schulz we must defy “the fortified wall that looms over meaning.” And with Grossman we must protest against the “terror of vapidity, banality, routine, stereotyping, the tyranny of the simplistic, the masses.” Grossman wanted, in his writings, to present life – “not ‘life’ in inverted commas… [but] a life of the living. A life in which we are not merely refraining from killing the other, but rather giving him or her new life, revitalising a moment that has passed, an image seen a thousand times…”

 

Against this, we find not only extremists who reduce individuals to objects to be sacrificed, (to statistics again) but also the “mass media” – which is “not only designed for the masses but in many ways it also turns its consumers into the masses.”  Grossman’s view of the mass media I find particularly convincing: it constantly stimulates the public need (I would put it in inverted commas: “need”) for stories, and for individuals to publicly praise or blame. But, what seem to be moral judgements are actually “mechanical, automatic, with no sincere interest in the problems they highlight.” Their targets are constantly changing. “The zapping is the message.”

 

Good literature on the other hand brings a sense of “internal clarification,” it “individualises and extracts the single reader out of the masses. It gives him an opportunity to feel how spiritual contents, memories and existential possibilities can float up and rise from within him, from unfamiliar places, and they are his alone, the fruits of his personality alone.” “At best, literature can bring us together with the fate of others.”

 

In See Under: Love Grossman wants to say that “He who destroys a man, any man, is ultimately destroying a creature that is unique and boundless, that can never be reconstructed, and there will never be another like it.”

 

He concludes his article with this important idea: “The secret and the greatness of literature... is that [it] can repeatedly redeem for us the tragedy of the one from the statistics of the millions. The one about whom the story is written, and the one who reads the story.”

 

See Under: Love is reviewed at:   http://www.babelguides.com/view/work/16389

 

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3.1.2 The Talmud... on the value of an individual life:

The organisation ‘Faith Matters’ has published a booklet on Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust (‘Role of Righteous Muslims’)

- the advert for this (in the New Statesman) includes a quote from the Talmud ‘If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.’

www.faith-matters.org

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3.2 Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Other (Verso, 9.99): by a Polish foreign correspondent – writer must exile self and go out into the world to meet ‘the other’ face-to-faace. From Herodotus to the European Renaissance, contact with the other was defined by violence. The literature of Defoe, Swift, Voltaire, Goethe, the French encyclopedistes, first drew the other on his own terms, with clarity and humanity. Then Malinowski. Only hope is to ‘generalise’ the other (as Levinas suggests) to ‘any other person’ and to recognise that you are an Other too. Ends with Joseph Conrad: ‘the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.’

 

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3.3 The Lucifer Effect:

 

Similar points about how we imagine others are made by Philip Zimbardo, emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University, and Sam Keen, social philosopher, in their books: The Lucifer Effect, and Faces of the Enemy. See http://www.lucifereffect.com/dehumanization.htm#faces for more on the “Lucifer effect” – which describes the 1971 experiment at Stanford University, when students role-played prisoners and guards, and ended up being extremely cruel and violent; in Faces of the Enemy, Keen describes the many ways that the “other” is made out to be a threat; see: www.samkeen.com. 

 

In the Guardian (290208) Zimbardo (who was an expert witness for one of the prison guards in Abu Ghraib…) argues that we need to find ways of overcoming or resisting the Lucifer effect – we need to be heroes, but of a “banal” kind, not the “elect heroes” that our society is obsessed with.

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3.4 The Unknown Terrorist. (Note from 2007) – there is an interesting piece by Stephen Moss on the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan in the Guardian G2 today (20.04.07). Flanagan, in The Unknown Terrorist (Atlantic Books) attacks the current obsession with the “war on terror”, and he dislikes the use of the word “terrorism”: “It [the word] blinds us. Terrorism is simply murder. What is it we dislike? We dislike murder and the use of murder to try to impose a repressive regime.” He says that in Bali after the bombing, the bombing was simply treated as a crime – whereas in America September 11th was “an attack on their national honour, and it led them into a madness that the world is now paying for.” A large part of the madness, he says, consists in trying to convince people that “There are things that matter more than individual freedom” – but, he says, that is the language of Stalinism.

 

In attacking truth and individual freedom, we are becoming like the “other” that we have created and that we demonise!

 

Flanagan’s answer is that while we (i.e. in the ‘mainstream’ response) “seek to protect ourselves by creating and feeding difference, and by making people feel alienated, and that it’s not possible to share with other human beings the possibility of being fully human… The best possible defence we can offer against evil and the possibility of terrible, murderous acts is by letting people back in… In a world where people feel ever more frightened, alienated and tossed out to the periphery, death cults offer a way back.”

 

4. Philosophy (including Marxism):

 

4.1 Buddhism:

 

The law of dependent origin (paticca samupadda): http://www.buddhanet.net/bvk_study/bvk212b.htm  Fascinating, especially as the basic point seems to be that ‘sensation’ can lead to ‘attachment’, and thus to unhappiness. Being aware of sensations but not reacting to them, presumably while meditating, can lead to enlightenment, since we can recognise that we are free to react or not to any given sensation. There is not, as most people presumably believe, an automatic link between sensation and reaction. The more we practice this detachment, the more we will be able to be free from our own sensations...

 

Guardian May 30th 2015 has a profile of Matthieu Ricard:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/29/planets-happiest-human-and-his-app

Meditation can bring positive thoughts and compassion.... I quite like that his ‘app’ is called Imagine!!

 

4.2 Capra: Ways of thinking: rational vs. intuitive, masculine vs. feminine:

Fritjof Capra, (in an article originally published in Resurgence, May/June 1981, and reprinted in The Best of Resurgence, Ed. John Button, pub. Green Books), draws a distinction between the rational and the intuitive modes of consciousness. He also says that these modes, which are “characteristic aspects of human nature throughout the ages” have also been called scientific vs. religious, or linear vs. non-linear, and so on.

 

He then draws on the ancient Chinese system of yin and yang. For the Chinese (Taoists) the universe follows cycles – the cycles are represented by yin (contraction, conservation) and yang (expansion, aggression). “The yang having reached its climax retreats in favour of the yin; the yin having reached its climax retreats in favour of the yang.” These are not two separate states or forces, but “extreme poles of a single whole.” “All natural phenomena are manifestations of a continuous oscillation between the two poles… The natural order is one of dynamic balance between yin and yang.”

 

Capra says that “From the earliest times of Chinese culture, yin was associated with the feminine and yang with the masculine”, but each person has a mixture of both, or goes through phases of one or the other. However, in western culture, especially since the “age of reason” and the scientific and industrial revolutions, these characteristics have been distorted, and then fixed to one sex or the other. Thus the feminine is seen as passive and the masculine as active - whereas for the Chinese the yin principle is active. We can then see how other characteristics – including co-operation and intuition – are allocated to the feminine only, whilst competition and rationality are masculine!!

 

Perhaps this western “polarising” and separation of yin and yang, a way of thinking enforced by men - together with the dominant role given to yang, i.e. masculine, behaviour and thinking - explains the tendency of men to regard anything “feminine” as a threat, an “other” that must be kept apart and dominated!  (And such notions are reinforced by such stupid popular books as Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus…)

 

Capra’s main point is that the current ecological crisis stems from this fixed way of thinking, and we need to follow (one version of!) feminism, and retrieve the “feminine” or yin characteristics – balanced with yang of course – to find a way out. For Capra, “rational (yang) knowledge is linear, focused and analytic. It belongs to the realm of the intellect whose function is to discriminate, measure and categorise. Thus rational knowledge tends to be fragmented. Intuitive knowledge is based on a direct non-intellectual experience of reality arising in an extended state of consciousness. It tends to be synthesising, holistic, and non-linear.”

 

This is not far from my way of thinking, as noted above: I am not sure whether my use of “imagination” is synonymous with Capra’s use of “intuition”, but I have already made the same points he does about the need for a distinct way of thinking, which is more creative, free, sensitive/responsive, sympathetic, collaborative etc.

 

I do not know whether Capra is right in other points he makes: that modern physics is changing to embrace a view of the universe as an organic whole, a network of dynamic relationships that include the observer; that the social movements of the 1960s have tried to bring about a change of paradigm, along the lines he has described; and that provided these movements bring together their common outlook, by drawing especially on the insights he attributes to feminism, then we might avoid an environmental cataclysm… but let’s hope!

 

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4.3 Marxism, Religion and “modernity”:

 

See also: Political Philosophy Part 2 (pp16) for a different version of these notes.

 

Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, had an interesting piece in Guardian 22.11.07: he argues that “our brand of modernity turns people into things defined by their function. All too often, we are what we do.” He then points out that this was the sort of thing said by Marxists “back when they were a more potent cultural force.” But now, he says, it is modernity which defines us by our functions - or by our achievements and actions - “through league-tables, productivity, efficiency savings” etc., and in modernity we are treated as “tools in some vast machine-like system.”

 

I hope that we would all agree that humans should be treated as more than tools in a machine, though we might not agree with the Christian notion that we have a “soul”... 

 

Fraser’s points arose from a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which the Archbishop attacked US foreign policy - an attack which grabbed the headlines - but in which he also attacked “modernity” for “eating away at the soul.” (I am pleased, though, that the Archbishop and presumably Giles Fraser nevertheless do care about American foreign policy!)

 

How then do we counter this ‘destruction of the soul’ – this reduction of humans to tools in a machine?

 

Fraser argues that this is where religion, art, even holidays, come in – provided we indulge in them for their own sake, not to make us better workers! In particular he believes that “religion resists the oppressive efficiency of time management because there is nothing to measure.” Contrary to those who argue that God cannot exist because He cannot be empirically verified, Fraser says that “a world where everything is measurable and testable is a world in which competition can find its way into every nook and cranny of life.”  He acknowledges Marx’s comment that capitalism turns everything into commodities, and therefore everyone into objects – but he says that Marxism’s “uncompromising materialism” is part of the problem: it fails to prevent - even contributes to - the processes that it condemns. 

 

There is a certain amount in this that I would agree with - especially the criticism of how we are subjected to constant dehumanising pressure to work and to produce. However I have two major problems: (a) a narrow and incomplete view of Marxism, and (b) the view that the answer to the problem is religion.

 

(a) I would want to point out, first, that the same sort of critique of those Marxists who have a narrow, materialistic, deterministic point of view has been made by many on the left, including myself, and especially by anarchists. Some thinkers who were originally Marxists, such as Castoriadis, gave up Marxism altogether because they believed that Marx could only be interpreted in this deterministic (“materialist”) way. See my notes on Castoriadis: Recommencing Revolution.

 

Second, whilst it is true that there are Marxists who are obsessed with “measurable” phenomena such as the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, it is important to remember that the “hard” “material” basis of Marx’s theory was developed as a critique of capitalism, and one way of reading Marx is to attribute the desire to measure everything as essential to capitalism. Marx’s critique then tries to show how the “measures” are based on “contradictions”. Thus the value of a worker’s output is supposed to be what the worker’s production is worth; however, the fact of the product becoming a commodity – and exchanged at exchange value not use-value – enables the capitalist to pay the worker less than what he/she produces. The worker also becomes a commodity, whose value is measured by the market – by how much an employer is prepared to pay for him/her (not by how much the worker produces or is really worth).

 

It is of course possible to argue that the flaw in Marxism is its not being able to think beyond the “measuring” that capitalism is based on; and those “humanist” Marxists who reject the emphasis on such “economic laws” as “the tendency for the rate of profit to decline” attempt to retrieve from Marxism a positive content that imagines a real alternative to capitalism. The alternative to capitalism is given, of course, in his portrayal of “communist” society. Marx seems to say that in communism we will be no longer be controlled by material forces, and that we will no longer base social arrangements on what is measurable. To quote one of Marx and Engels’ most well-known phrases, describing communism: “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (from the Communist Manifesto) – this surely must mean that in communism we will have give up trying to measure the value of one’s labour or one’s production (since there will be no question of taking only the amount that you have earned)?

 

So I would argue that the depth of Marx’s critique of capitalism - and the subtlety of his “materialism” - can be appreciated if we look closely at the portrayal of communism, for example in “The German Ideology.”  Here, in a passage that I believe is very meaningful, Marx tackles the division of labour and the excessive specialisation (our becoming what we do) that comes from the way the division of labour has been developed under capitalism.

 

He argues that originally (in distant history) the distribution (or division) of labour arose out of “natural” differences between individuals, especially in the family (“where wife and children are slaves of the husband”); this relationship was a manifestation of the first form of property, for, in a startling phrase, Marx says that “Division of labour and private property are identical expressions.” Engels examined this further in his writing on the origins of private property and the family...

 

Later writers however, especially feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir, have argued that Marx and Engels’ explanation is not thorough enough. It is a short but significant step from “this job is mine and that is yours” (division of labour à private property) to “my job [property] is more important than yours, and therefore you are subordinate to me;” and it is taking yet another step to say “you therefore belong to me”.  I shall comment further on this shortly.

 

In his discussion of the relationship between “what we are” and “what we do” Marx identifies the problem as: “man’s own deed became an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” Why “forced upon him”? For Marx it is clear that some people have more power than others, which then enables them to own and control the work (the “labour power”) of others. To my mind Marx’s argument is inadequate to explain how this unequal distribution of power came about - though it is clearly a result of (and/or facet of?) social inequality. The problem is: how did society come to accept that some had the right to control others’ labour?  Personally, I like Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist explanation, which is roughly that some activities (“projects”) enable people to define their existence – to develop and to grow as human beings; and other activities are routine, boring and unfulfilling.

 

Before continuing this explanation, let us note that Marx has a more subtle view of “what we do” than Fraser attributes him with: we – at our best and most fulfilled – are creative… See the famous point about how we differ from bees etc: bees and birds build in apparently creative ways – however, they have no freedom to build other than as they as a species always have (birds cannot construct hives, nor bees construct nests). Humans can choose what to build, what to do, what to create – or not to create of course. And if feminists are right to argue that men seized control over the “creative” aspects of “what we do” then that is an extremely significant way of explaining things. (It does, however, lead on to the discussion often had over de Beauvoir: is it justified to say that having children is not “creative” – not a “project” that enables women to fulfil themselves? More of this elsewhere see pp21 Feminism and pp21 Feminism: de Beauvoir.)

 

So, the extra power that men had acquired, perhaps through their physical strength, and because the biological nature of women meant that they were restricted in their activities - i.e. in order to nurse and breast-feed children - together with the control over property that men had acquired, meant that men could control “projects” - activities that enabled them to develop and grow - whilst making sure that other less fulfilling activities were allocated to women. To help explain how a certain distribution of power came to be so rigidly and deeply instituted, I would add an idea that actually arises from Marx’s dictum about class, and class power over ideas and meanings: “the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.” It seems to me that it is social arrangements (not facts of nature) that lead to a society regarding one kind of activity as more valuable than another, and if one group has control over ideas – as men did originally according to feminists, and as owners of property do, according to Marxists – it is easy for them to enforce their social position through control over ideas.  

 

Marx in fact argues (contrary to Giles Fraser) that this de-humanising and enslaving of people - and this alienation - can only be ended in communist society, with the abolition of the division of labour: 

 

“...where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes… [and where it is possible] for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, cowherd, or critic.”

 

Marx adds that: “this fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now”. [My emphasis] Again, I take this to mean that we can reach a kind of society where we are no longer subject to material forces. (Extracts from Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan, 1977, p 169).

 

(b) How does religion help in all this?  It follows from what I have just written that we do not need religious explanations to show the limitations of some aspects of Marx’s thought. Feminists have added to Marxism in an essential way, and those on the libertarian left have shown the devastating effect of a Leninist – scientistic, mechanistic – interpretation.

 

In fact the problem with religion is surely simply that religious ideas can be part of the controlling set of beliefs used by whoever has power. The promise of a blessed afterlife has too often been used to mitigate the sorrows of this life (“religion is the opiate of the masses”). And the power of men has been reinforced by Christianity’s ambivalent attitude to women (Eve the temptress versus Mary the Mother of God).

 

And what does a religious outlook suggest should be the alternative to “I am what I do?” Does it help at all to say “I am a spirit as well as a body”? In my notes on St Augustine especially I argue that the Christian tradition is imbued with the view that the body is “sinful” and the “spirit” is what must be nurtured; and the problem with Christianity (and other religions), for me, is that they split off the spiritual, thereby enabling too many of their followers to ignore altogether, or even to despise, the material reality around them (and in them!).

 

Though some Christians do “good deeds” the church as a whole is mainly interested in “spiritual salvation” – it goes without saying!

 

And what is wrong, exactly, with the statement that “we are what we do”? Surely if we take these words in a broad sense, and not just relating to our “jobs” it is a valuable idea: that we are what we make of ourselves, what we create? Moreover, Jesus’ words: “By their fruits ye shall know them” surely mean that a Christian should work in such a way as to contribute to a better as well as a more “Christian” world? And the – to me – central Christian notion of “love” is after all an activity.

 

Alternatively, to say: “I am what I believe” cannot be enough: we are not isolated individuals, believing whatever we each believe to be true. (Is “I am what we believe” any better?) The strength of Marxism was that it tried to formulate the interdependence of the individual and the community and the species – an interdependence that works on all levels: biology, language, thought and belief, production… Yes, this is a “materialist” approach – but we are material as well as “spiritual” beings.

 

Finally, a couple of quick points:

 

I do not find the label “modernism” helpful: the characteristics that the Archbishop criticised are not exclusive to the modern period, nor essential to it – as I have argued, they can be seen as endemic to capitalism (which extends beyond modernism). Capitalism seems to me to be a more important word since it is the economic mechanism of the market, underpinned by individual self-seeking, and tied into a system where wealth creates more wealth (so that the wealthy become more and more wealthy) that ‘eats away at the soul’ and reduces each of us to a cog in a machine over which we have no control.

 

Of course, religious thinkers prefer not to use such a politically-loaded word as ‘capitalism’!

 

It can also be argued that it was when ‘Marxism’, under Lenin especially, adopted ‘modern’ capitalist management and production methods (viz. Taylorism) that it became ‘mechanical’ and exploitative. See my notes on Marxism...

 

I am not suggesting that those on the left, let alone Marxists, have the only answer to the problem of individual identity and fulfilment:

I very much like Satish Kumar’s saying:

“You are, therefore I am.”

 

(Satish Kumar is a yoga practitioner, and edits Resurgence magazine, which promotes alternative technology etc.)

 

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4.4 The role of philosophy – including a note on Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005) [taken from Jonathan Ree’s obituary, Guardian 23.05.05]:

 

Too often philosophers develop systems which become “closed” and what starts as a new way of thinking, whose purpose is to free us from constraints and errors in some previous way of thinking, becomes a new “orthodoxy.” Orthodoxies need “priests” and an apparatus of control to prevent “deviant” thought. This happened to Marxism, and I have been strongly influenced by the struggle that many Marxists went through to remain true to their original principles when the consequences of their thinking had produced monsters – Castoriadis, of course, posed the question as “whether to remain revolutionary or to remain a Marxist.”

 

One of the characteristics of a closed philosophical system is that it becomes what I call “circular” – its proofs lie in its terms only, its basic components reinforce each other, and no single component can be refuted without abandoning the whole system. (‘Mainstream’ science seems to me to be like this as well – see also the notes on Capra on this page).

 

I have not read Ricoeur’s work, and may be mistaken in my reading of Jonathan Ree’s account, but it seems to me he approached philosophy in an “open” spirit: we should “grant equal rights to rival interpretations” of the essential dilemmas of existence. A French Protestant philosopher, he studied and was guided in his thinking by Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and Jaspers. Ree says he aimed “to teach us to feel the full force of authentic intellectual discomfort.” 

 

His 1960 book The Symbolism of Evil argued, says Ree, that “we are not so much the creators of our symbols as their creatures, and philosophy was the ever-incomplete attempt to discern their multiple meanings”. This is “hermeneutics”, the art of interpretation. Is this point about our relationship to symbols, I wonder, close to Castoriadis’s argument that we easily come to believe our symbolic creations are “real”? 

 

Ricoeur criticised structuralism as being dogmatic, especially in relation to subjectivity and “realities independent of language.” He made restrained criticisms of Barthes, Lacan and Althusser – their responses were mostly not so restrained or generous apparently! See his Freud and Philosophy (1965).

 

He was one of those who set up the university at Nanterre in 1967, as he had been critical of the French failure to address the problems of the university system, especially the increasing student numbers. He became dean of letters there in 1968, and found the revolutionary students had no time for his “sceptical pluralism.” (He had rubbish tipped over him...)

 

Later works include: The Rule of Metaphor (1975), Time and Narrative (1983-5) which try to work out an understanding of subjectivity which would “replace the ego, master of itself, with the self, disciple of the text.” Ree says: “Subjectivity was neither a transcendent fact nor an ideological illusion; it was, rather, an artefact of the metaphors and narratives through which we endlessly seek to ‘configure’ the riddles of our existence.” In 1986 in the Gifford lectures, he argued that questions of morality and action necessitate our treating “the self as an other.” See also his Memory, History and Forgetting (2000).

 

“It is easier than one thinks (he said) to hate oneself... the ultimate blessing would be to be able to love oneself humbly, just like any other suffering member of Christ.”

 

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4.5 Wittgenstein and ‘seeing’ – useful article by Ray Monk (*), NS 20/8/12: http://www.newstatesman.com/2012/08/changing-aspect where he discusses what Wittgenstein meant by ‘understanding’ and the deceptive role of language. We should not think of words as corresponding to objects (except perhaps in the simplest cases e.g. ‘chair’) – rather a word groups together a ‘family’ of connected but also different things. Wittgenstein wants to develop an understanding which consists in seeing connections, and we need to literally look more closely (as we would with faces) to sort out resemblances and differences.

Wittgenstein, says Monk, was the opposite of Russell, who needed words to describe things (e.g. shapes in a recognition/intelligence test) – Wittgenstein also described himself as a disciple or follower of Freud. This has led to puzzlement, but Monk suggests that Freud also believed we think primarily in pictures. Our dreams (wrote Wittgenstein) show ‘how complicated is the way the human mind represents the facts in pictures. So complicated, so irregular is the way they are represented that we can barely call it representation any more.’ Not everything we can see or mentally grasp can be put into words. Some things can be said, others have to be shown. Hence: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ – the ‘famed last sentence’ of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein also made clear in private conversations and correspondence (says Monk) that those things about which we have to be silent are the most important...

(*) author of Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius (Vintage), Professor of Philosophy at University of Southampton.

 

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5. Miscellaneous Topics:

 

5.1: Aboriginal views of the world #aboriginal

5.2: A note on ‘the truth’ #truth

5.3: ‘Other’ #other

5.4: Imaginaries and “local life-worlds” #imaginaries

5.5: Richard Sennett #sennett

5.6: happiness, wellbeing, flourishing etc. #happiness

5.7 How babies learn #babies

5.8: Psychoanalysis – and love (Freud) #psychoanalysis

5.9: Knowledge and Wisdom (Nicholas Maxwell link) #wisdom – to follow up!

5.10: Arthur Koestler – and Walter Benjamin #koestler

5.11: Robert Irwin and ‘quest narratives

 

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5.1: Aboriginal views of the world:

 

The thought of writing a book on the imagination - prompted (resurrected?) by piece on Alexis Wright, aboriginal writer (G 150408) – author of Carpentaria (novel, won Miles Franklin literary award 2007), Plains of Promise (novel), Grog Wars (about aboriginals and alcohol). Carpentaria includes an aboriginal view of the natural and spirit worlds (plus a murder plot!) -  but whilst questions of self-determination underlie the book, it is also a work of fiction that “demands not a bill of rights, but a space to think and breathe” (Stephen Moss).  She says: “When you have a secure space, you are able to ask yourself questions about what might make it better. At the moment we haven’t got the space to dream a future for ourselves, or to imagine how we might want to be. A lot of our people are working so hard at the level of survival that we’re not dreaming, not imagining, to the point of feeling that it’s not even worthwhile to dream because we can’t make our dreams come true. My role as a novelist is to explore ideas and imagination, and hopefully that will inspire people from my world to continue dreaming and to believe in dreams.”

 

Interesting points are made by Wade Davis in a review of a book by Jared Diamond (The World until Yesterday) –

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jan/09/history-society?INTCMP=SRCH – he cites the anthropologist GEH Stanner ‘the visionary realm of the Australian aborigines represents one of the great experiments in human thought...’ they have more than 100 named kin relationships interwoven in a complex matrix; no notion of linear progression whatsoever, no word for time in any of their languages; they live to maintain the world as it was at the moment of creation, through their Dreaming.

 

To understand how aboriginals feel about their position in Australia: ‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant (Harper Collins, Australia). G2 22.02.16 has extract.

 

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5.2: A note on “the truth”:

 

Julian Baggini, G 140407 attacks relativism caused by “academics and intellectuals who have been so keen to debunk popular notions of truth that they have created a culture in which the middle ground between shoulder-shrugging relativism and dogmatic fundamentalism has been vacated” – e.g. Foucault (an extension of Nietzsche) and Richard Rorty… Anglophone philosophers find hyper-scepticism absurd, but it has had influence in social sciences and filtered down to “man in the street” – even to Rumsfeld: “when we act, we create our own reality…” (rejecting those who live in what he calls the “reality-based community”).  Says Baggini: “Rorty and his ilk seriously misjudged what happens if intellectuals deny truth stridently and frequently enough… such denials make liberal openness appear empty, repugnant and weak compared to the crystalline certainty of dogma.”

Recommends book: Why Truth Matters by Stangroom, J and Benson, O.

www.julianbaggini.com

 

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5.3 ‘social contagion’:

Dr Nicholas Christakis believes we are all influenced by others through ‘social contagion’ (Obs Mag 170110…) And a more recent article on the same idea: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/20/why-clap-social-contagion?

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5.4: another use of the word “Imaginaries”:

 

A book to follow up: The Spaces of modern cities – imaginaries, politics and everyday life by Prakash and Kruse – our urban experiences still depend on “local lifeworlds”, rich with memories and imagination – but in an age of globalisation we are losing this…

 

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5.5: Together by Richard Sennett (Allen Lane) – from interview, Observer ‘Agenda’ 12.02.12: looks at social co-operation in diverse communities – he argues we are losing the impulse to co-operate with the ‘intractable Other’ (people who are different from ourselves); the impulse to co-operate is being deformed: ‘the increase in inequality means a greater distance between social classes, so you get ‘indifference as a way of managing difference’ – ‘not a complex social tapestry that mixes people together’ – and multiculturalism has not helped: it’s not about co-operation but (especially once children reach age 14) people can’t deal with others who have a different accent and colour. [So we must redefine multiculturalism and talk of ‘interactive multiculturalism’ as distinct from ‘separatist multiculturalism’?]  Modern capitalism doesn’t encourage much interaction because it’s highly stratifying’ – ‘community’ is important in the workplace (and is not simply ‘where you sleep’).

 

The ‘big society’ is a form of ‘economic colonialism’: “It’s a kind of colonial mentality. We’re not going to give, we’re going to ask you to become self-sufficient, a Bantustan.’ You can’t have a big society and close libraries – and the first impulse (of the govt) was to save money to make bankers happy. German and Scandinavian capitalism is more socially responsible than in Britain. Sennett also dismisses ‘equality of opportunity’ as it means one in 20 gets to Oxbridge – what happens to the remaining 19? ‘It’s a kind of lie about what equality means’...

 

From review by David Runciman, G 04.02.12: Together is the second part of a homo faber trilogy: humans as makers – hence previous volume about craftsmen. The Next volume will be about cities. Community life is relatively easy, as it means like-minded people working together; co-operation is more difficult as it means dealing with people who are different to ourselves. It takes time and practice. (Community organisers have to balance identifying with those you are trying to organise whilst maintaining a distance in order to connect the community with the outside world.) Since co-operating is so hard, we need rituals (e.g. manners) to help us. From time to time there is an ‘unsettling’ – e.g. the Reformation undermined the Catholic forms of co-operation with its individualism, and it took time for people to work out how to co-operate. Likewise the scientific revolution at first produced people who couldn’t work easily together (labs were ‘cold and inhuman places’ at first). The IT revolution is also ‘unsettling’ our patterns of co-operation – the web isn’t yet really co-operative (far from it!). Sennett doesn’t think co-operation in politics (viz coalition government) is desirable: it is people who need to co-operate. Some people are getting better at co-operating faster than others, leading to inequalities... (see also above!). Face-to-face is best, but the new technologies do not help this. Has material on Owen and Fourier. Is about the environment we create for ourselves.  

 

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5.6: ‘Happiness’:

 

Richard Layard reviews ‘Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them, by Martin Seligman (Nicholas Brealey Publishing 14.99): flourishing comprises: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (PERMA); but Layard questions why not focus on happiness still? After all, to choose how to rank these elements, (and why them?) surely the test is if they bring happiness. Also Layard points out that positive psychology can come over as very individualistic – but our own well being depends on how others behave to us (and I would add, vice versa) – for Seligman we are empathetic for our own sakes.

 

For Layard we should go back to the Enlightenment: we should seek a world in which there is the most possible happiness and especially the least possible misery.

Layard’s book: Happiness: lessons from a new science.

 

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5.7: Babies (i) How babies learn:

Gopnik, Alison – The Philosophical Baby: What children’s minds tell us about truth, love and the meaning of life. Bodley Head £14.99.  Babies are learning machines, constantly experimenting on and analysing the world to adjust their understanding of it. Every few months they change their view of the world (adults might do this two or three times in a lifetime). Children are the R & D dept of the species, adults the production and marketing dept. Growing older we learn to select out and focus more narrowly. We can retrieve something of this outlook by travel (new experiences of new cultures etc) and meditation. “Babies, like Buddhas are travellers in a little room.” (Review in Gdn. Josh Lacey 080809)

 

“Counterfactuals” – fantasies or fictions – are necessary in order to plan for the future – thought experiments, the ‘capacity for imagining other potential worlds’… Babies’ consciousness is a lantern, adult’s a spotlight. They learn very quickly what facial expressions mean and who to trust, and they pick up language incredibly quickly. Experiment where ‘secure’ and ‘insecure’ children (i.e. different upbringing) shown mothers being separated from their children, some of whom tried to get back the child others not: the ‘insecure’ children watch more closely the mother who cares, and the ‘secure’ watches the one who doesn’t… looking at he ‘novel’ and different, to see what can be learned from it? Altruism shown when researcher pretends to prefer broccoli to crackers, and 18 month baby feeds the preferred food to them – an innate sense of otherness? (review by Sally Vickers, Obs. 090809)

 

Babies also learn about the world through what their mothers see and do – a sad baby makes mother sad and this in turn makes baby sad… The cycles can be interrupted e.g. a project in Michigan where primary schools got extra resources etc, made the parents more confident and capable, as well as improving the life-chances of the kids.

 

Cf. on this: Jenni Russell, G 060809: Harlem project: Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) (See csr6 inequality updates).

 

(ii) How big-hearted babies turn into monsters: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/may/04/how-babies-turn-into-selfish-monsters

- a review by Tracy McVeigh of a new book: The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality, by Graham Music. Music argues that children are not naturally selfish, that they have an inbuilt desire to help others, and moreover that this can be undermined by giving extrinsic rewards (the ‘inner’ reward is diminished by doing this – in my own words). He also shows how stress keeps us in a fight or flight mode, and it is then more difficult to be unselfish. Combine materialistic consumer capitalism with the stress of modern life (especially the stress that tells us we must have more!!!) and no wonder we are breeding selfish children. (Well, some people are...).

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5.8: Psychoanalysis – and love:

Lisa Appignanesi quotes Freud in her book All about Love (Virago Press 20): ‘Every psychoanalytic treatment is an attempt at liberating repressed love which has found a meagre outlet in the compromise of a symptom.’

 

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5.9: Knowledge and wisdom:

Need to follow up the writings of Nicholas Maxwell – see enl3science.htm 

 

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5.10 Arthur Koestler – and Walter Benjamin… both to research:

Article in Observer, based on Michael Scammell’s biography: Koestler: the Indispensable Intellectual, Faber 2010 (£25), also short piece by William Skidelsky.

Important how his experience imprisoned when reporting the Spanish Civil War – seeing many fellow prisoners executed and awaiting execution himself for months, which – along with miscarriages of justice (Derek Bentley 1953, Timothy Evans 1955, and the hanging of Ruth Ellis) – led to his opposition to capital punishment and a campaign, with Canon Collins, Victor Gollancz, Peggy Duff, and The Observer (David Astor). Parliament voted against capital punishment, but the vote was passed to a private member’s bill, and it was thrown out in 1956 by the Lords. It was suspended 10 years later, and only abolished outright in 1970. Published the Observer articles as a book: Reflections on Hanging.. Other key works: anti-communist novel Darkness at Noon 1940, and contribution to Richard Crossman collection of essays The God That Failed 1949, on the iniquities of the Soviet system. Also Scum of the Earth (on the Nazis).

Committed suicide 1983 along with his wife Cynthia – he had met Walter Benjamin fleeing from the Nazis in 1940, (he had been expelled in 1933) who shared morphine tablets with him. Benjamin committed suicide when arrested by the Spanish police.

Another review is at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/17/arthur-koestler-indispensable-intellectual-biography?INTCMP=SRCH

 

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5.11 Robert Irwin has a list of top ten ‘quest narratives’ - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/apr/21/robert-irwin-top-10-quest-narratives

which he describes a quest as ‘ a journey in the course of which one advances spiritually and mentally, as well as physically traveling miles’ (what Satish Kumar would call a pilgrimage)... His list includes Siddharta by Hermann Hesse, and several books on Buddhism such as The Way of the White Clouds, and The Thousand-Petalled Lotus.

 

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5.12 Marina Warner, in Stranger Magic, discusses the place of magic in our imaginations and sympathies.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/11/stranger-magic-marina-warner-review.

See also How Enlightened was the Enlightenment? Chapter 7 - the arts section 2.3 ‘the other, the orient etc’ - for notes on this book.

 

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5.13 E.O.Wilson has a fascinating view of the need for us to ‘spiritualise’ the environmental movement and relate to the religious by a common concern for the environment. There is an interview with him on http://www.trulyalive.org/index.htm - a website devoted to the idea that if we face up to the reality of our death we will be more alive... The interview is also at sm8 environment E.O. Wilson paper.pdf. 

 

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5.14: Time – did it start with the big bang or is it real (and outside the laws of physics)? Lee Smolin and Mangabeira Unger: The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/06/the-singular-universe-and-reality-of-time-universe-smolin-review - includes statement that Unger in The Self Awakened (2007) argues that the root of human experience is ‘groundlessness’: astonishment that we exist, that the world exists, etc. In The Religion of the Future (2014): ‘to live in such a way that we die only once... We squander the good of life by surrendering to a diminished way of being in the world. We settle for routine and compromise. We stagger, half-conscious, through the world. Anxious for the future, we lose life in the only time that we have, the present.’

 

Podcast: https://www.theguardian.com/science/audio/2014/dec/08/cosmology-robert-mangabeira-unger-universe-time

 

 

END