Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Her Blood-spattered Frock

Two jar by nature. Irresolvable opposition
is the seat of change, of perception.
Harmony in conflict. Peace in stress.
Instability in equilibrium.

I cannot extend the span of my empathy
and stay inside the fold, shielded
from the social winter that drives
the tough outsider on. See

how I change: empathy flows then cuts
me off. The two jar: isolated empathy,
empathic isolation. But it’s as natural as grass,
as Yin and Yang. Two jar by nature.

Opposition creates sense; sense
bubbles up from its well, this first position,
this deep fundament. One rises from two
to begin variety. Opposed hands shake,

one agreement is struck. Then endless
interpretation. Then no discernible one.
Impossible placebo, the mind’s eye
solid as chance, centred as awareness.

Suspended by left and right, top and bottom,
scaled between black and white,
right and wrong, poles are meaningless alone.
Empathy’s encircling warmth chills. I click:

a string of 0s and 1s blooms a two year old girl,
a father’s face caught in one moment,
mine quickly entangled, a dusty war zone,
a cart of heaped torsos and limbs

and the girl in mid-air, tossed to join them,
unabandoned by her father’s arm reaching out forever.
His fingers grasp mine across an ocean of noise
and seal the uselessness of my empathy.

My courage fails.
Opposition has me. I am tugged in two directions
going nowhere. Then this squeaks out
and I am miles from content.

I want to be more than the sum of this.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Don’t Feed the Beast II: Dissolving Face

(This post is my promised counter-position to my previous post. It does not represent my true and final position, but is rather a reflection of my desire to avoid too-stark binaries, too divisive either/or positions. See it instead as an alternative perspective that enriches and is enriched by its chronological predecessor.)

Charlie Kaufmann gave a beautiful speech a while ago, in which he implores himself, and by extension all of us, to be honest about our vulnerability, our shame, our prejudice, to somehow wear our souls on our sleeves, warts and all. In a sense, he uses his speech to put his social face on the line, to unmask himself. While listening, I loved both the man and the message. Why?

As I see it, sincere and courageous admissions of feelings of vulnerability, displays of humility in the sense of knowing It’s Not About You, indeed all displays of this sort, help dissolve face. They facilitate a kind of authentic intimacy, even if transmitted across time and distance. There is something about honest nakedness and sharing its attendant feelings of ugliness and unworthiness that deeply connects us with others. While this cannot have universal appeal nor apply to all situations and people, I suspect the broad hunger for authenticity most of us feel is assuaged by such displays, however temporarily. It can be very refreshing to get to know the human behind the face.

I should point out that sustained or permanent dissolution of social face is impossible; this is no call for 24/7 guts-out honesty. That would be too intense and would anyway generate face of a different flavour. Social face seems to be an unavoidable emergent phenomenon of particular social animals, entangled, I suspect, in the social value generated by personal contribution to the group. I was once walking our now deceased dog,  Hamish, across the Gloucestershire countryside  near our home. We took our normal route, part of which crossed a narrow plank of wood that bridged a deep brook. Hamish knew the route well by then, and leaped onto the plank from a distance as I was stepping onto it. He mistimed his effort and fell into the clear water. As he sank upside-down to the brook’s stony bed, our eyes met. His expression was the purest picture of shame and embarrassment I think I have ever seen, his very canine reaction to loss of face. He also hated to be picked up and coddled. And as parents we clearly see the slow emergence of face in children as they become increasingly self-conscious, increasingly aware of social expectations.

The question I am playing with in this post is the degree to which this unavoidable aspect of social life can be identified and sufficiently known with a view to handling it ever more wisely as time passes. In posing this question I presuppose a progress-like process of Universe that implies something like cumulative wisdom, however bumpy and irregular, one in no way limited to humans. In the absence of this, a Zen-like (or Zen-lite) shit happens philosophy is probably all you need, whereupon everything I do here becomes moot.

What I’m trying to bring into relief in these conjoined posts is what I see as an insoluble and inevitable organic link between, on the one hand, an anonymous and quasi-real beast that emerges via the social activity of all members of a society, and social face on the other. The nature of any particular beast depends on multiple and – very importantly – largely uncontrollable circumstances: environmental, biological, cultural etc. These factors co-create and continually recreate the particular society or organisation (though with change present as the only constant), within which face plays an important role, both positive (supportive) and negative (destructive).

Society, its organisations and institutions, and human beings alike are probably best thought of as web-like processes that are interdependent in both visible and invisible ways. One interface in this complex of interdependencies is face. Finally, whether or not a beast is perceived at any particular stage also depends on a mix of visible and invisible factors. And all of this is neither good nor bad per se, but does have positive and negative aspects, as just suggested.

So if there is a beast to be starved – in our own case one that has its roots in something like elitism and capitalism – it must be because some imbalance is in play, an imbalance that somehow renders to our perception as ‘evil’ a system (organisation, social mode, etc.) that was once relatively ‘unbeastly’. This is not to imply that perfect balance is possible; as with utopia, the pursuit of some pure perfection, some perfectly balanced system, heralds the beginning of totalitarianism, at whatever scale. To repeat, if there is a beast to be starved, it is because an imbalance is stressful enough to a sufficient proportion of people to render something to them as a beast. A scattered handful of malcontents cannot be enough to bring about meaningful change, even though meaningful change probably always starts with these folks, and starts out small.

I assert, therefore, that starving a beast with a view to allowing a different social system room to grow and settle in requires, in part, a mature and conscious relationship with social face, a wisdom which requires a humble sense of our own unique contribution to the beast’s continuing existence. Humility, as hinted at in the opening paragraph, is key, as is a keen awareness of face.

I have come to discern a beast in Perpetual Growth, primary driver of insatiable elitism, which is extractive and exploitative in its core dynamic. Rapid growth is as natural as steady state growth; a quick look at the rest of nature confirms this. Rapid growth becomes a beast to be dealt with once it has outlived its usefulness but continues anyway, with grand delusions of immortality. At the scale of civilisation, I believe we are now at a very difficult and precarious juncture: the transition from rapid to steady-state growth, a juncture no prior civilisation has survived. Because present institutions emerged from the paradigm of endless growth, they have become beasts incapable of perceiving and embracing this challenge. Their constitutions compel them to carry on as before. This is when face becomes destructive; admission of error is impossible. They are thus doing more harm than good. However, they are not separate objects ‘out there’ that can be starved as one might starve a prisoner in a cell. They are emergent phenomena of a larger process that we too constitute and consist of. They are parts of us and we are parts of them, as I have repeatedly asserted.

To create viable alternatives, then, we must first become people capable of establishing and sustaining them. Part of this is humble honesty about our relationships with our social face, our pride, our fear, etc., and awareness of our deep entanglement with the out-of-date paradigm we are trying to change. In part, this entails acquiring cultural wisdom regarding the enormity of the challenge, but primarily is about dissolving face. Now that this has haltingly begun in various areas, new ways forward will become clearer and clearer. Their viability will depend to a large degree on our collective ability to stay humble, honest and courageous: to dissolve face and keep it real.

We starve the beast by reducing our investment in its aspect of our own lives; we become the change we seek in the world. The beast we all constitute seeks to sustain unearned superiority and empty elitism, defensive pride and the ephemeral pleasure of material acquisition. Such fears and desires are in all of us. Not feeding them is part of understanding how to develop rounder, fuller and more meaningful modes of being, a very slow and awkward process. Not feeding them requires dissolving face and establishing lasting authenticity and authentic relationships, private and public. From an emotional, cultural distance, these attempts can look pretty strange. Many will prove to be dead ends (if there is such a thing), but experimentation is like that. And of course, there can be no guarantee of success.

This has been a very difficult post to write. I suspect I have not done very well getting my points across. In my defence, this is a subtle issue, but one I believe to be important and thus worth the effort.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Feeding the Beast II: Saving Face

(What follows is a look at a social phenomenon from a particular perspective. At some point I will follow this post with a look at this same phenomenon from a different perspective – Don’t Feed the Beast II:Dissolving Face.)

A few weeks ago I had the educational honour of discussing guaranteed income (in German) to a live audience as one of a panel of three ‘experts’. The polite host asked gentle questions, and the three experts responded, agreed and disagreed. Why is this relevant to Econosophy?

There were cameras, lights, and expectations. Before the discussion started, the host asked me some questions about my position, my past, my present, what sort of a human I am. He was to introduce his guests and so needed to know something about them, and seeing as the whole affair had been allotted a mere hour, the introductions had to be brief (sound-bite conditions). After our short chat, his introduction transformed me into an economist and philosopher. I had asked him to announce me as a simple blogger, but he probably wanted to lend me – and by extension the panel – a certain gravitas. I did not correct him on stage during his introduction. Not only was it my first time as an ‘expert’ on stage, I am by nature polite and did not want to cost him any face.

Nor myself, for that matter.

Social face is incredibly important. Its import seems to intensify with age, more so when you are seen as an expert for whatever reason, then even more so when you are on a stage with lights and cameras on you, with anonymous but expectant folk looking up and listening to what you say. Public loss of face hurts and can have real consequences for career and thus lifestyle. We are imaginative social critters suspended in a society of one kind or another by a web of interconnected meanings and layered value judgments. Sever too many strands of your personal web and it can be as if society has ejected you. (The direct links between face and money should be obvious enough, especially if I quickly point out the parallels between face and capital.)

Anyway, the discussion was cordial and probably not all that unfruitful. But what I felt most keenly during that intense hour – and why I wrote “educational” in this post’s first sentence – was how I had been effortlessly slotted into a societal pigeonhole, so as to be more easily dealt with, digested, neatly positioned somewhere clear and fixed in society’s lexicon. I was suddenly granted a social face I wasn’t aware I had a right to don. It was so automatic. The evening just powered forwards and dragged me along with it, changed me, obliged me to behave a certain way. I can now imagine what it is to be a politician, a mouthpiece for something NotYou. People become mouthpieces and lose ‘autonomy’ as a consequence of powerful social forces (I’m ignoring ego-ambition and sociopathy here for the sake of brevity). It’s how all this works, how complex society of highly specialised careers works. This vast dynamic is not easy to change, to put it mildly.

Social face also happens to have an inverted Janus aspect; it points both outwards and inwards; ‘escaping’ it is therefore far from easy.

I happen to have been my family’s primary breadwinner since forever. My wife has concentrated on the (in my eyes) far more noble role of housewife and mother to our two daughters. This is our family situation. For various reasons and against that particular backdrop, I quit my job in October 2011 with a sketchy plan for both my wife and I to earn money, for me to earn and ‘work’ less than before so as to free me up to study and write more and to be the change I want to see in the world. In short, to stop feeding the beast.

In other words, I turned our family’s then 16 year old dynamic around on a dime. It was my attempt at a small leap forward.

I ‘failed’, and that ‘failure’ hurt (there’s far more to it than this simplistic rendering, but time and space don’t allow …). So I am at work again full time, now for an even bigger corporation, having hated the constant uncertainty of freelance translation work (for corporations). And I was struck too by my daughters’ need to save their faces in their public arenas: to appear in certain clothes, own certain gadgets, live a certain lifestyle. Even though I am their father, who am I to ask them to believe what I believe, to faithfully represent my philosophy as their ‘own’ social faces develop and are woven into their lives?

My life does not belong to me. It cannot. Such a concept makes no useful sense. It ‘belongs to’ (is caught up in and a part of) my social face, both inward facing (to self, family and friends) and outward facing. Not completely, but very much so. Attempts to change it have consequences not only on you, but on those around you. The entire web of your life is affected.

Be the change you want to see in the world. If we attempt this, we attempt it for the world, for society. In doing so we create a new social face and slowly turn into it, perhaps unknowingly. In some ways we become leaders, which is an obvious consequence if we want our example to inspire others. One consequence of this is that we become indebted to our task, a servant of it, owe it and others our time and creativity. And it becomes a source of pride, of positive identity. How then do we stay objective, how do we maintain our posture of service? To what do we stay true? Pride or principle? To those flesh and blood people who depend on our leadership or to something more abstract? Changing face, changing direction sets up dissonant forces that upset existing elements of our lives; the conflicting demands are difficult to balance. Where does I end and Face begin? An unanswerable question, but what is certain is that balancing the new with the old is not easy. Emotions and pride are powerful, as are the needs to belong and contribute.

This challenge to fundamental change magnifies as we scale up the type of living system that can be said to have a social face. Numerous institutions have co-evolved with society and increased in complexity since we began our civilizational journey many millennia ago, each institution with its own face and representatives (with their own faces) tasked with upholding their respective institution’s face (be it ideology, money system, political party, etc.). Oh what a tangled web we weave…

Institutions cannot just be stopped, smashed, changed; they are emergent consequences of underlying social forces and beliefs, just as our personal faces and identities are. Until we have transcended them, ‘destruction’ of any institution will simply cause its recreation, with a new name perhaps, but with the same general dynamic.

As I have repeatedly said, we are the beast. The beast is the comfort we have become accustomed to, our habits, the social and cultural momentum that is greater than us as ‘individuals’, the face we have invested in. The beast is ugly when we defy it, go against its grain, go solo, march off out of step to Somewhere Else, or when we have nothing of ‘value’ to feed it with. To fight the beast you need to have a certain robust insensitivity coupled with a fine sensitivity, buckets of patience and stamina, and the freedom to fight. Only a very few people are blessed (cursed?) with these traits and circumstances, and thus knowingly construct a social face which, if only in part, has its roots in a slightly different dynamic. Ralph Boes is one (on whom more in a later post), Franz Hörmann is another.

And yet none of the above means Perpetual Growth can ‘work’, it just touches on one aspect of human social life that goes some way to explaining why profound change is profoundly difficult, why we are entitled to a little forgiveness, why we need both patience and passion. The mighty forward momentum of this paradigm will grind down in the end; nothing lasts forever. Not one of my experiences alters the fact that paragdigms grow old and die, that now, in this complex and tightly global world, profound change is afoot, change brought about by the odd calculus of civilisation, and by the stirring emergence of empathy and brotherly love as it reaches outwards across borders and out to other species, in fact to all life everywhere. And beautifully, as it reaches out, it cannot understand the eddies it creates in the global mind as they task us with letting go of the old and beginning with the new, however we ‘choose’ to go about this work.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Freedom! and the Frantic Drab

To act or not to act is a bewildering boundary. To navigate it competently, inquiry into the nature of free will, that hoary topic, is mandatory. It is tiring to put the question, more so to dwell on it; to this day it remains stubbornly unresolved, a futilely visited Gordian’s Knot, our blindest spot. How often, if at all, we are capable of free choice – choice we consciously experience as deliberate – may be beyond our powers of perception and deduction.  What follows is a cursory and playful toying with this topic.

 First, we make note of the obvious reality of awareness. But we should then immediately acknowledge that our day-to-day awareness is limited, even where our own selves are concerned. Thus, even if we are disposed to insist that we own our bodies (whatever that assertion means), it does not take much effort of thought to realise that this supposed ownership bestows neither full awareness nor full control of what our bodies actually do (behind our backs).

Second, let’s accept that the dualistic mind-body split (an idea that permits a conceptual ‘ownership’ of the body by something not-body which is then the true ‘I’ by implication) is intellectual casuistry that does not accurately reflect reality, even if it reflects our (language-generated) perception of reality.

It follows that when, on those rare occasions, we are aware of having made a deliberate choice, we can neither know nor prove beyond doubt that it was wholly deliberate, fully the outcome of ‘self-control’, and not, say, the surface sensation of some inner process beyond conscious awareness.

Proof of free will must, therefore, lie beyond the reach of our perception and science.

Given these two conditions, faith is surely inescapable. In fact, faith lurks in the shadows of all our systems of thought and science like the mad lady of gothic literature, banished to the attic yet secretly in control of events. And this control is not the consequence of free will. How ironic is that, ladies and gentlemen?

My particular faith says that we indeed make deliberate choices, that we do exercise free will, but that this happens rarely. Its rarity is a direct consequence of what I have come to call the Frantic Drab. We have no time to spend Quality Time with ourselves, are thus strangers to ourselves, are also in automatic lockstep with a culture of endless baubles, and lack the personal psychological and emotional development to properly reflect on our actions and make wise or mature choices.

Enjoy it while it lasts.