February 7, 2019

Salvation from the East

Filed under: GA — Q @ 6:30 pm

The religious practices of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism are mostly ritual in many places. But there is a more spiritual strain found in certain sects and their texts: the idea that consciousness itself is the sacred or God. The very fact of being conscious means that we already know everything that it is possible to know about God or Buddha, although certainly revelation or enlightenment can make that knowledge more available to understanding. The insight of Buddhism is that consciousness is essentially one thing, despite the various creatures who each possess their own form of consciousness, and despite the infinite possible objects of consciousness. A Zen master once summed up Zen teaching in one word: “Attention.” When asked to elaborate, he said, “Attention, attention, attention.”

Consciousness is shared by animals. There is a famous Zen koan about a monk who asks his master whether a dog has Buddha-nature or not. The Zen master answers “no!” although I understand the Japanese word “mu” (sometimes translated as “no”) is actually more nuanced. The traditional teaching of Buddhism is that all beings have Buddha nature and attain enlightenment, including dogs and stars, rocks and trees. The point of the koan, as I understand it, is that the student should be seeking enlightenment not wondering about doctrine. Zen disciples seek enlightenment, the content of which defies any rational explanation. Meditation on the master’s answer to the student’s question, mu, informs the Zen practice of some disciples.

Kant wrote, “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” To develop his point, I would say there are three miracles which support faith in God: Being (the universe surrounding us), life (which fills the heights and depths of our planet), and human consciousness, which is indeed distinguished by our sense of right and wrong. Eric’s idea of the scene of representation can be articulated in ethical terms. To be aware of God, or to be aware at all, means to be aware of the human community, as a community, and to be aware of individuals, as individuals. Human consciousness is a new awareness of others, as mediated by a sign. Buddhism is never nihilistic. Consciousness, the scene of representation, is filled with the attention of the human group.

All animals and even plants have the ability to react to their environment, and can thus be said to share the miracle of consciousness. Rocks and stars do not obviously have consciousness. But Zen Buddhism, like Kant and Hegel, seeks to overcome the opposition of the perceiving self and the objects of consciousness. Anything that can be perceived, therefore, partakes of Buddha, and the duality of subject and object, coming and going, is illusory. For this reason, the question of whether the scene of representation has any ontological status apart from human consciousness is not meaningful.

Buddhism recognizes that life is suffering, and that the source of suffering is desire. The human condition therefore is desire and the suffering which results, a very Girardian insight. The solution is to minimize desires for sensual pleasure and not let desire lead one into sin. There is an ascetic strain to certain types of Buddhism and Hinduism. Enlightenment suggests an inner serenity and detachment from external conditions, founded on the insight that all existence is always-already free and transcendent.

January 12, 2019

A Unified Field Theory of Victimocracy

Filed under: GA — Q @ 1:06 pm

Eric bases his Unified Field Theory on the Originary Hypothesis, which is so original that it has resisted assimilation to contemporary academic discourse, not to mention popular news or culture. We remain limited to a small corner of the internet (the Anthropoetics website) and our annual conferences. As Eric comments, Generative Anthropology doesn’t articulate the resentments of any particular interest group. It’s a sad comment on academia today that a persuasive theory with important consequences is not recognized because it affirms the value of “firstness” or merit. I read almost everyday about the “myth” of meritocracy. Eric points out that the genius of the left’s attack on “privilege” is that anyone can participate, no matter how successful, by simply acknowledging their “unmerited” position with an apotropaic gesture designed to ward off criticism. But anyone who is white and successful remains vulnerable to attack. Political Correctness benefits certain rhetorically-powerful interest groups, while allowing the current political and economic system to operate almost without check. Conservatives have not yet found an effective rhetoric to counter PC. Who can be against “social justice”? The problem is that PC actually functions counter to its stated goals.

Despite the claims of PC, America is still distinguished by its openness to innovation, talent, and merit of all kinds, irrespective of race, gender, or class. But there are real structural issues that have contributed to the large wealth inequalities in America today, issues that could be profitably addressed at the political level. But the current political climate actually prevents any such constructive efforts, because firstness must be denied.

The current political debate can be derived from the opposition of center and periphery on the Originary Scene. The periphery is defined by equality. Everyone is equal before the firstness of the center, and in the ability to make and exchange the sign. The originary hypothesis explains the fundamental moral intuition that everyone is equal in rights. Studies have demonstrated that children as young as two years old already have a sense of fairness and reciprocity.

The center of the Originary Scene, on the other hand, defends the rights of firstness. One who benefits the group deserves a reward for their work. PC wants to exclude firstness by claiming that any inequality in material situation can only be due to an oppression that denies fundamental equality. This is a Manichean world-view, in which all the benefits of civilization, because they are not distributed equally, become evidence for evil conspiracy. But rewarding merit is actually completely in accord with the principle of moral reciprocity. One is recompensed according to one’s contribution to the community.

I would like to point out that firstness and egalitarianism actually depend upon each other. Egalitarianism is made possible only by firstness, the power of the center to defer conflict. The sacred center reduces everyone on the periphery to the same level. We are all equal before God. The firstness of the center is not reducible to the authority of the alpha male. He acts solely for self-benefit, even if, as Darwin pointed out, his domination indirectly benefits the species as a whole in the long run. But more importantly, no symbolic representation is involved with the alpha male’s position in the group. It was probably not the alpha male who invented the first sign, although he must have imitated the sign of others on the originary scene.

Firstness depends on egalitarianism, as the rights of the community, because a privileged position can be claimed and defended only in terms of its benefit to the group. When Obama said, “you didn’t build that,” he was attacking the privileges accorded to firstness, and ignoring that individuals who invest their lives in a business are rewarded freely according to their benefit to the community

December 23, 2018

Towards a Globalist-Victimary Unified Field Theory

Filed under: GA — Q @ 4:57 pm
  1. The American left’s political program, especially but not only “democratic socialism,” is based on repairing “disparate impact,” which is a polite term for describing discrimination based on race, class, gender or any such ascriptive category. The argument is that all races, sexes, and ascriptive groups are equal in ability and discipline (any individual differences presumably balance each other out within a group). Therefore any statistical differences in material circumstances between groups are caused by discrimination. The government’s duty in this situation is to prohibit and prosecute any discrimination; but that, for various reasons, such efforts are bound to be inadequate; therefore the government should, by taxes and various welfare programs, redistribute income more equally, first, among all inhabitants of the US, and also all oppressed groups worldwide. Furthermore, anyone who opposes efforts at reparation is by definition a racist (sexist, etc.). Whereas previous socialisms were based on thesis that the capitalists oppressed workers, the new socialism is based on the idea that “white males” oppress all other groups, and that such oppression is “systemic” or “structural,” that is, not dependent upon the intention of any particular individual.
  1. Economic success in the 21st century West depends largely on what might be called “technological literacy,” exemplified by computer programming and other skills. This is a relatively new development. Many individuals and groups are unable to compete successfully in the new “information” economy, which depends upon technology and the manipulation of symbols, as in computer programming—leading to some of the inequalities, and resultant resentments, noted above.
  1. The irony of this political situation is that the rich and privileged, who presumably benefit the most from systemic discrimination, are some of the most vocal and active supporters of the left. On the one hand, this can be understood as a hypocritical effort at publicity, which can affect the success of corporations, and even more so, politicians. The “socialist” program consists largely of public gestures which have little or no concrete effects; and when they do, usually make problems worse, just as rent controls are well-known to make affordable housing more scarce.
  1. Eric’s most original insight, however, is that the benefits of “battling discrimination” are more than simply publicity. That “democratic socialism” actually supports the economic system it purports to combat. This is the only way to explain how and why technological leaders really seem to believe in the battle, such that they are not tempted to vote Republican even in the privacy of the voting booth. This point is rather opaque to me. But it seems to be about how modern Western democracies manage resentment. On the one hand, resentment can result in violence and therefore must be deferred. But the anomalous nature of Modernity is such that the economy actually depends upon the stimulation and production of resentment, which fuels a large part of our economy. The most obvious example is social media, but also includes media in general. Perhaps the main export of the West is our music, movies, and television shows. The “productivity” of resentment also applies to our education system, especially the University. But our economy is still substantially based on the production and consumption of material objects and services: food, cars, medical care, housing, and other consumer goods. And it’s not clear how the production of resentment can help supply the material goods upon which our lives depend. Perhaps this is Eric’s point, that resentment is “productive” only up to a point, but ultimately it might be our downfall. It’s certain that the attempt to put democratic socialism into effect would have disastrous effects upon our economy, and result in drastically lowered standards of living for all.
  1. In any case, it’s not clear that the GAFA CEOs really get a “free pass” on resentment by publicly condemning racism etc. Mark Zuckerberg’s position is now threatened, and Google employees are protesting to great publicity.

August 8, 2018

A few thoughts on reciprocity

Filed under: GA — Q @ 8:30 am

One of GA’s important insights is that a conversation, as an exchange of words, is analogous to other forms of exchange including market transactions. And that such exchanges function to defer violence when they include a degree of reciprocity. What makes an exchange “reciprocal”? In a conversation, that means that I am willing to hear what others say (seriously hear, take into consideration in my responses) in exchange for the same from them. In an economic transaction, that means that the transaction is accepted by both parties as mutually beneficial. In general, we can say that an exchange is reciprocal when it is freely entered into (and it can be exited at any time), and it is perceived as “fair,” or mutually beneficial. To some extent, such exchange is its own goal. But in the public sphere, say the letters section of a newspaper, people exchange words for a definite purpose, which is to convince others of one’s point of view.

In the classroom, the student exchanges money, time, and attention for specific goals: knowledge and skills which may be valuable in various ways. The teacher provides students the opportunity to learn knowledge and skills. The benefit may be economic or not. Knowledge and skills can be intrinsically valuable apart from their economic exchange value.

The ideal of “student-centered learning” is valid, in my view, because student engagement is the sine quo non of learning. As the saying goes, I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. As Socrates demonstrated long ago, dialogue is productive of knowledge. Socrates’s “teaching” was based on his desire to learn. He asked his interlocuters to teach him. His teaching was open to learning. Socrates can be said to have invented the idea of student-centered learning. Some professors take the Socratic ideal to mean that knowledge is “constructed” and lacks any objectivity, but I’m not in that camp; although I agree that ultimately everything is up for debate, if the interlocuters make that choice. We can make more progress, however, by agreeing on some basic premises, just as Socrates established agreement on basic facts or claims, then moved on to further questions and logical consequences.

GA also tells us that all human interactions are subject to resentment, and this includes classroom interactions. People tend to generalize about their experiences with authority figures, so that resentment for teachers may reflect their experience with prior authority figures more that any particular teacher. Teachers need to remember this sometimes.

Open-ended learning is one goal of education, but there are also knowledge and skills which have been refined and tested over thousands of years, the value of which find wide acceptance in a variety of spheres, including economic. Students pay for time with a teacher because of his/her expertise in accepted knowledge and skills.

The point I want to make here is that reciprocity is relative to the goal of a particular exchange. Reciprocity in the classroom is not achieved by accepting the student’s opinions as equal to the professor’s knowledge. Reciprocity is achieved when the exchange (of student’s time, money, and attention for the learning opportunities provided by a teacher) is entered into freely and perceived as fair.

The goal of education, for students, is learning, in the form of knowledge and skills. The problem arises when the goals are not well-defined. In schools, there are a multitude of pressures for lowering the standards of knowledge. Acquiring knowledge and skills is extremely difficult, and not every student is willing to make the sacrifice. The value of the targeted knowledge and skills is not accepted by many students and, now, professors too. This situation leads to a lot of resentment and the perception of unfairness. The problem, in my view, comes down to assessing the students’ knowledge and skills. And we can’t do this without some kind of standard. Learning goals in education are generally defined very vaguely. Students often perceive the assessment of their learning as completely subjective: “the professor didn’t like my paper.” As if the grade was given on purely subjective grounds. For now, this is an insoluble problem, because professors can’t agree on what specific knowledge and skills are necessary and valuable, or what the standards should be; students, of course, follow suit. There are larger social and economic pressures which foster this situation. However, having clearly defined and transparent goals for a particular class, and applying those standards impartially, will help defer resentment. Professors can do this now, despite the larger social situation. Professors, however, need the support of colleagues and administrators in order to maintain high standards. The general trend is towards the lowering of standards, for a variety of reasons.

July 22, 2018

Girard on the Passion

Filed under: GA — Q @ 7:11 am

Rene Girard’s take on the Passion is, on one level, desacralizing. The Gospel narrative of Christ’s persecution, torture, and execution reveals the perspective of the victim—the victim of sinful men acting as representatives of corrupt religious and political institutions. He didn’t deserve his crucifixion. We can see the “scapegoat mechanism” in action.

It’s ironic that Girard posits the scapegoat mechanism as the origin of our idea of god, and yet that the true God, when he came to earth, would be scapegoated and then deified. I don’t think Girard ever fully came to grips with this irony and its implications. He just regarded it as a profound mystery. But maybe there is a poetic meaning (I don’t say “justice”) in this irony.

For Girard, the Passion is the world historical event of events: revealing “things hidden since the foundation of the world.” Girard argues that our political structure and social order is based on sacrifice and/or scapegoating, in one form or another. The revelation of the truth of scapegoating upsets that structure and inaugurates a new age. The mimetic power of scapegoating and sacrifice is so powerful and mesmerizing that only God, in the person of the Son, could reveal its truth. So Girard reasserts true divinity, even as he demystifies the false sacred and false gods.

Girard’s interpretation contradicts traditional (substitutionary) theories of the Atonement, that “Christ died for our sins,” a theology that seems to assume a “vengeful” God who demands retribution, without any consideration of the guilt or innocence of the victim. In practice, Christians have evaded responsibility by blaming the Jews and Romans for Christ’s death.

For Girard, the Passion is a heuristic, in a radical sense: a revelation that makes continued scapegoating unconscionable. Of divine origin, but ultimately its meaning is rational and cognitive. So radical is the hidden truth of sacrificial religion (and related institutions) that it required the spectacular paradox of the God on the Cross to communicate its meaning. I understand that a theologian was able to convince Girard (after the publication of Things Hidden) that the substitutionary theory of the Atonement has some validity, but I’m not familiar with the argument, so I refrain from comment.

In any case, by demystifying “sacred” violence as human in origin, the Crucifixion confronts humans with their own violence, allowing them to recognize the true God, and seek salvation through faith. In this sense, Girard reaffirms the basic Christian message of repentance and faith.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress