Difference and Repetition: John Coltrane, modal music, and the value of musical preservation

Skip in the video to 1:15, and a 40s-style big band instrumental instantly transforms into a recognizable melody you may know from “Impressions” by John Coltrane. What is most fascinating is that the lineage of this tune first passed from Miles Davis’ copying of the chord progression of the middle section of the song, and only later did Davis’ former saxophonist partially copy the melody of “Pavanne” and speed it up. In this way, one of the most recognizable standards in jazz is not only a poetic mimesis or “hard bop” version of a modal piece, but the entire basis for the modal genre is based on a simple unassuming big band tune. In this way, one realizes that, to use Deleuzian language, from an existing strata, there are deterritorializations that moves “forwards and backwards at once” as Coltrane famously said.

This is just more evidence that the cliche that “all good music is stolen” may in actuality have a huge amount of truth. There is no such thing as pure innovation, and things that ultimately seem like “gifts” from a divine or deep source, but a product simply of culture.

But what gives “Impressions” that special something, could that be the spark of something else? Maybe we will never know.

I seem to have a strange attraction to music that is lushly chordal, and sometimes the simpler and more melancholy the better. To me, the real pioneers of modal music were the ancient makers of polyphonic chant, Leonin and Perotin, in the late 1100’s!

 

 

Perhaps the most profound and numinous of all things in the world of music is the simple chord that resonates and echoes into an empty chamber. What jazz did was find the soul in the groove, in the rhythm, but perhaps modal jazz was not an innovation, but rather a reterritorialization or appropriation of the Western canon, or the harmonic tradition itself. And yes, this song by Perotin is in Dorian, just like Impressions. There is something about the Dorian mode itself, beyond what any frail human can do with it. What Coltrane did with impressions was a combination of speed, groove, and ambiance. But the essentials of beauty in music come from harmony, the realm of the sacred, while the realm of rhythm has always (in the Western tradition) been the realm of the secular. Renaissance music was essentially a combination of the bard’s dance and sacred themes, and the most ancient precursors to the jazz quartet was the roving band of minstrels (coupled with the Gospel choir, a fusion of the African dance and, again, the harmonic Western tradition).

Perhaps Miles Davis and Coltrane went back to the hymnals for inspiration? It is clear that Coltrane found new spiritual territory on A Love Supreme, with its repetitive meditative themes. But here Coltrane found an entirely new territory- the Orient, the East, which has its own sacred trance-like tradition. In jazz, inspired creativity of several disparate cultures became one. Music that touches the ineffable or sacred, despite its “all too human” origins, if it reaches excellence in the individual bodies of humans who must perform it, all of the sudden “transcends” its station. The voices of choir members suddenly are “transubstantiated”. The transcendental dimension, far from being a Platonic dimension that can be accessed by Reason, or a divine realm accessed by faith or divine providence, is simply immanently transformed into something beautiful, through the process of differentiating and being faithful to what can only be called tradition.

What is truly incredible is the remarkable human process of cultural capture and dissemination, of transmission itself. The music of the world, now that we are becoming globalized, is now being cataloged, preserved, and a new generation of musicologists born. It is our shared human heritage. Far from something that only makes culture into a museum, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, along with regular members of society, take this shared wealth and keep it for future generations to enjoy. If it is divorced from its original context, we cannot continue to daydream and wax nostalgically about a dying past: we must do the slow and steady work of salvaging, of bringing up diamonds from the rough. So when Sonny Rollins said, when the latest John Coltrane “Lost Album” was unearthed, “its like finding a new room in the Great Pyramids”, he is not far from the truth. Rollins understands that Coltrane is part of America’s musical heritage, part of us. Without our history, our all too human, but our fascinating, noble, and beautiful history, we are nothing, we sacrifice the future.

 

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Tales from Iceland: the savageness of nature

Finally the blog will live up to its name!

In my travels I frequently end up talking to tour guides and paying very close attention to what they say. I had an excellent guide through the Golden Circle (a circle of three important stops outside Reykjavik- Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall) whom I had an excellent conversation with. The guy’s name is Elvar (sic) on the Grayline Iceland Golden Circle classic tour. Great guy- Elvar if you are out there, you’re a good bloke! He had an extensive knowledge of Icelandic folklore and we had a great conversation about Icelandic culture, history, and folklore. Elvar expertly woves tales of the Ejill saga with the history of the drowning pool at Thingvellir, the law rock of the Alþingi, the war of the bishops, and of course- elves! Tourists to Iceland get no shortage of stories of elves.

If you go to Iceland, you have to do the Golden Circle tour, its incredible. We got to pet Icelandic horses and everything- and it wasn’t that expensive at all! Iceland is a travel gem- just don’t eat very much in Reykjavik! The prices are as gargantuan as the snow capped peaks. Go to the Bonus grocery stores if you are on a budget.

But back to the real reason I’m writing about Iceland: it’s culture. My guide very adeptly identified that religion for Icelanders is a complicated matter because they became Christian very late- around 1000 AD, and even still they retained much of their folk belief. For instance, the bishops had regular discussions about what to do in case of encountered a giant or troll!

That’s Iceland for you, still a relatively remote region of the world, despite its connection to the larger Scandinavian area. The rural areas of Iceland are very cut off- there are many small towns of less than 1000 people. There are still a few houses I saw tucked away all by themselves on the mountainside amidst vast tundra plains of rock and moss.

In this way, Iceland reminded me very much incidentally of Bhutan, another mountainous country in which they have many stories of nature spirits who inhabit the waters and rocks. If there’s anything I learned, its that Icelandic folk belief is almost “indigenous”, and certainly animist. Their connection to the earth is strong, as well as the sea, a mountainous island that is unique among the world’s landscapes and unique in its culture.

Iceland retains much of its ruggedness well into the 21st century. They’ve experienced a lot of deforestation, but most of it occurred during the first years of colonization a millennium ago. Power lines cross the otherwise empty landscape, but otherwise it is still mostly unspoiled. In this way, Iceland is not very much different from some areas of the Himalayas I encountered- the powerlines mark both with the sign of modernity, but retain much of its natural brilliancy. Let’s hope the conservation of Iceland’s natural splendor is taken as seriously by its people as its 100% renewable geothermal and hydroelectric energy. And lets hope tourism to Iceland does not explode out of proportion with what it the land is willing to bear.

The raw power of nature in Iceland is something that is still unstoppable. The volcanic activity is substantial: the largest single eruption in modern times occurred here in the 1700s, purportedly shooting lava plumes 1 km in height into the sky! Incredible. Nature here is still something feared and respected, and not just considered pretty or even worshiped as “mother earth”. No- Mother Earth truly is a bitch here! She was the mother of Þórr after all! In Iceland, waterfalls still rage, volcanoes roar, and you truly do feel the power and glory of unspoiled nature. 

See those glaciers on top of the mountain up there in the picture? They may not be there for long. Icelanders- if you truly are as connected with nature as you say you are, you must protect these natural treasures for everyone to come, especially the rightful owners of this land- yourselves! If anything, do it for selfish reasons! Nature can be savage, but now humanity can even fell the mighty glaciers that once covered this great land. 

Do Zizek and Peterson agree on religion?

Spoiler: no they do not.

Jordan Peterson is so fundamentally bad at making arguments that he can’t help but make the naturalistic fallacy every time he opens his mouth. Hierarchy is natural and good, religion is natural and therefore good- that’s his whole spiel, as many authors and columnists have pointed out explicitly. It’s pretty obvious when he engages in these kind of religious apologetics that his ultimate agenda is propping up conservative ideology and politics, but why does it appear in this video that Peterson is making a similar argument to one that Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek often repeats about God and the unconscious? Is it because Zizek is a closet fascist like his detractors claim?

What exactly is Zizek’s argument? Here’s a good video clip summarizing Zizek’s position on religion:

Zizek states in his works many times that the Dostoyevskyian assertion that “If God does not exist, than everything is permitted” is actually true in reverse: “If God does not exist, nothing is permitted”. Why? Because true believers or fundamentalists can violate seemingly inviolable moral law if they “fulfill God’s will” (think jihadists who martyr themselves for the cause of Islam). But why is nothing permitted to those that do not believe? Because for Zizek, they still unconsciously believe in a Big Other.

This bears a strange resemblance to Peterson’s argument that non-believers secretly believe, but not all is as it seems. Peterson is simply falling back on the old “no atheists in foxholes” argument: non-believers unconsciously believe they may be punished in the afterlife if they commit a sin.

Here Peterson commits a fundamental misreading of Christianity. As Zizek argues following Hegel, in Christianity God literally dies on the cross in the act of kenosis or becoming fully man. Thus for Christ, one’s fate in the afterlife should be inconsequential to you when considering what is right and wrong. Thus, atheists, in their conception of a moral law that is higher than God himself (if he exists at all) are more faithful to the spirit of Christianity than Christianity itself. This may seem just as obscurantist as Peterson’s claim, but it is clearly different. For Zizek, atheists who hold certain ethical standards as absolute do not do so because they believe in God, but they simply have been raised in a culture steeped in Christian history.

If Zizek were to raise this point to Peterson, Peterson might do a victory lap and claim religion, irrespective of whether it is right or not, invented art, morality, etc. However, notice how Peterson would attach a value judgement to the idea of absolute ethical standards being good. Absolute ethical standards have sometimes led to draconian laws and a perverted sense of justice – one need only mention the Inquisition. Peterson also, in proper New Age fashion, collapse in his apologetics of religion all religions into one, despite the fact that they hold vastly different moral codes. He would possibly claim that they share certain common elements, but one need only look at the moral system held by the Jains when it comes to food consumption and compare that to any religion that does not promote vegetarianism to conclude that there are complete incompatibilities between religions. If he were to claim that all religions promote love for mankind and certain basic ethical principles, I would actually agree with him- religion’s essential dimensions are the ethical and metaphysical or cosmological, which then concatenate with the social or cultural. But Peterson’s utter lack of nuance makes all of his pithy comebacks about everyone being religious “on the inside” ring hollow to avid atheists. If he were to claim that a central aspect of being human is spirituality, anthropologically I would have to agree with him. I would also agree with him if he couched his language in historicism, by claiming that the main source of inspiration for art and poetry for most of human history was the spiritual or religious traditions that were kept in a particular place and time. However, what Peterson fails to do is differentiate the existential dimension of being human from spirituality or spirituality from organized religion, thus rendering his naturalistic argument, which seems to make a claim about all future, as well as past, art and poetry, a moot point.

The problem is I know exactly where he’s coming from, from a Jungian perspective, and its actually somewhat refreshing to see the New Atheist crowd taken to task and asked some tough questions. The dialogue is actually somewhat interesting, and I’m trying to lay my political prejudices aside in this theoretical debate. But everything, every intellectual terrain, is micropolitics. There is a micropolitics inside of linguistics, inside of anthropology – perhaps to the inside observer they are more than micro!

Peterson fails to understand the lingering legacy of the European Enlightenment. The man is definitive product of reactionary elements in the Romantic movement – Peterson would fit right at home in 19th century Europe, taking what he will from disparate cultures in a hodge-podge manner and filling it out with sophistry. Peterson reminds me most of armchair anthropologists and psychologists of the 19th century like James Frazer, author of the Golden Bough and one of the primary influences of Carl Jung.

One of the gifts of the Enlightenment and German idealism is that rational thought can be decoupled from tradition. Tradition and social custom, as even Diogenes the Cynic knew in ancient Greece, are the antithesis of free thinking. Organicist defenses of social custom and tradition divorced from the content of that tradition ignores many of the ills that have been created by art and poetry throughout the ages. Art has been the most useful tool for propagandists since the rule of Hammurabi, since the dawn of the first empires on Earth. One need only read the Mahabharata or the Iliad to realize that, as Walter Benjamin said in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” 

I think we haven’t grappled with the true weight of Benjamin’s realization.

 

Symbolic castration and the role of the Father- is Zizek a Father figure? Or are we Oedipalized subjects?

As my friend Landzek over at the Constructive Undoing blog has suggested, the academic propensity to continually reference what one says and back it up by an unending stream of authorities is a product of our culture, a culture that is trained to “go to the authorities”, thus reproducing power. Here I’m tempting to quote Foucault and Lacan, but I will try to “authentically” reproduce their arguments on my own, as well as synthesize them. The author, the omniscient third person narrator, conveys authority by virtue of being a kind of “wise detached figure” who replicates, in psychoanalytic terms, the detached Father figure. When authority is unquestioned by use of these micropractices, power replicates itself. To Zizek’s credit, he continues this psychoanalytic tradition by continuing to elaborate on the concepts of symbolic castration. But where does the source of symbolic castration come from? Is it a natural process that every child must go through, according to Freud? This is the heart of the anthropological critique of Freud, first made by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, and later theoretically by radical psychoanalyst and one-time disciple of Jacques Lacan, Felix Guattari.

The video above by Zero Books correctly locates the source of the search for a Father figure in a societal event, in the lack of authority that currently evades the “establishment” -the bumbling buffoon in the White House, but also the weak opposition of the Democratic party. But it refers, by virtue of Zizek’s Lacanian pedigree, to a Freudian theory of the universality of the Oedipus complex (which as a rule, Zizek tends to evade in his theoretical work, due to certain improvements by Lacan).

It is here that the contribution of Bronislaw Malinowski to the debate about psychology must be brought into play. In all literature on this subject, with the notable exception of Deleuze and Guattari, contributions from the field of anthropology are, as a rule, ignored. Malinowski, in his book Sex and Repression in Savage Society, in addition to presenting his own concrete ethnographic material on the psychology of peoples from southeastern New Guinea, contended that the “Freudian dogma of the universality of the Oedipus complex” obscured the diversity of familial structures that existed across time and space in human societies. Despite having certain dated aspects to the work (the word Savage in the title being the most glaring) authors like Zizek tend to forgive Freud’s 19th century underpinnings in discussions about psychoanalysis. Malinowski was a staunch advocate of cultural relativism based on objective data. Any and all philosophizing about the nature of Man without reference to anthropology is, for me especially as an anthropologist, laughable, and bound to come from assumptions driven by our culture. Similarly, we may think- “is the Oedipus complex merely a reflection of our society?”

Surely, however, Zizek would contend this debate has no relevance to contemporary psychoanalysis, which has “transcended” these issues. I would argue that contemporary Leftist intellectuals, Zizek included, have all but ignored the contribution of Felix Guattari to the field of radical politics and “psychoanalysis”. Despite Zizek’s contention that the only salvageable parts of Gilles Deleuze’s legacy is his pure philosophical works, not his work with Guattari, Guattari’s break with Lacan marks an important point in the history of radical psychoanalysis, and is fundamentally rooted in the latter’s skepticism of the political revolution of May 1968 in France, something Guattari viewed as fundamentally reactionary. That debate being too deep to go into in the context of this article, it is important to note that while Lacan shared Guattari’s skepticism about reproducing structures of oppression in a social movement, Guattari took the line of direct critique of the Stalinist French Communist Party that was unwilling to condone the actions of the May 1968 protestors.

Back to the debate about psychoanalysis. Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus contend that our culture has been “Oedipalized” by existing power structures, and that behind every authoritarian father there is a patriarchal Boss, the dehumanizing bureaucratic apparatus, the mind numbing effect of the commute, etc. etc. Truly, then, we must contend that it is OUR society that is pathological, not primitive societies, as originally contended by evolutionary colonialist anthropologists. Malinowski and later Margaret Mead were the first pioneers of this line of thought, and even greater contributors to thinking about the ramifications of this than even radical French philosophers D&G.

But what does this mean for the Jordan Peterson v. Zizek debate? Peterson admits wholesale in the video clip that he is a psychologist who believes we should defend the existing social order, thus proving wholeheartedly Foucault and D&G’s point that the true gatekeepers of society are not its policeman or the army- it is the policeman of the mind, the psychologists, the philosophers even! “The maintenance of the social order is necessary”- society must be defended from intruders, internal and external! This is the paranoid mindset that Foucault defines as the archetypal “fascist psychology”. It is this paranoia that animated the Stalinist purges, it is this that truly defines what fascism is- the paranoiac belief that the Other is coming- right outside your doorstep! The Jew, the Muslim, the capitalist roaders even- it is this paranoia that should be outright rejected, even in the face of real onslaught by forces that seek to do harm on “society”.

So we should reject all Father figures then, including Zizek, while engaging in productive discourse, not accepting the party line. We should not allow microfascisms to colonize the mind of the movement toward social liberation. But is it New Age speculation to say that we have to move beyond even the “social revolution”? What if what is really necessary after all is a change of heart, a collective change of heart? It is hear that I go beyond critical theory, anthropology, psychoanalysis, or mythology as intellectual reference points, and appeal to general compassion. Human Compassion- not political ideology or Thought- to human sentiment, to Feeling. To define what is right, we need to delve deeper into the territory of compassion, something Peterson in his pseudo-Buddhist wisdom tends to forget about Buddhist philosophy. The absolute pacifist should remember that inaction is a form of silence and passive observance of the status quo, and forgets their ethical obligation to society. But the militant should also remember that the ends do not justify the means if one hopes to create a better social order, for another form of oppression will inevitably replace the existing one. This fuzzy line should be guided by the credo of compassion.

Therefore, in the interest of humanity, we should reject all Father figures- Mao, Jesus, Buddha, Marx, Freud (notice they are all men), and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get somewhere. There is no Big Other- this is Zizek and Lacan’s lasting contribution to psychoanalytic philosophy. We should be merciless in its application.

 

Edit: I embarassingly put the wrong Zero Books video link. Now its right

We do not need a spiritual ecology- we need a political ecology

A spiritualized, Buddhistic ecology is attractive to the Western mind that fetishizes Eastern religion. Bhutan in particular comes to mind in promoting this new ideology of “Gross National Happiness”, which unfortunately comes at the expense of ethnic minorities such as the Lhotshampa. However, it is not that this spiritual ecology isn’t a good idea- it is the character of this spiritual ecology that is the question. I will use my own fieldwork in Bhutan to argue for a political ecology approach. We must, in analyzing the policies of South Asian nations like Bhutan, go beyond state ideology and get to the actual policy prescriptions, community practices, and complex ecological and societal landscape that exists on the ground.

In this article, I will not be providing many references to scholarly articles, but I am basing my argument on my fieldwork and knowledge of the scholastic literature about Bhutan found in sources such as the Journal of Bhutan Studies and work by Bhutanese researchers at the Ugyen Wangchuk Institute of Conservation and Environment, the primary national research center for the environment, where I did my research in 2013.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan currently guarantees that its national forest cover remain at 75% to protect biodiversity and the natural heritage of the country. However, this progressive policy, while in contrast to Western nations that continually exploit their own remaining national parks and wild areas, is partially due to pure inertia- the landscape of Bhutan is notoriously mountainous, and some parts of Bhutan are very essentially inaccessible. The primary economic motivating factor in preserving biodiversity in Bhutan is to promote ecotourism and ensure the continued sustainability of industries such as logging and hydroelectric power. That being said, it is not as if the logging that does take place is 100% sustainable- actual figures are hard to come by, but during my time in Bhutan, I noticed that large swaths of forest had been granted by the government to logging companies to provide timber for construction in the growing capital city of Thimphu. This rapid urbanization is exacerbated by the rapid migration from rural areas by young people who want to escape a life of farming. In addition, the hydroelectric power which provides the main source of electricity for Bhutan is not without its ecological effects: by damming up entire rivers, hydroelectric plants affect the riverine by negatively impacting aquatic biodiversity levels and disrupting fish migration patterns. Some studies have been directly done by UWICE on the ecological effects of dams, but during 2013 the focus of research was on community forestry, and my team of students were sent to assess the impact of recently enacted community forestry policies on communities and the environment.

I was on the socioeconomic team of the assessment of community forestry in the Chumey geog or district. The results of our interviews and observations were multifaceted as to the results of these policies, but a broad picture emerged during my stay. Community forestry was an attempt by the government of Bhutan to decentralize power and return some power to the communities in terms of their own forests after the forests were nationalized in the 1970s. However the boundaries of the community forests around the agricultural villages were still small and did not represent the extent of forest available to the villagers prior to the 1970s. In addition, my inquiries about dying traditional agricultural practices with local villagers revealed that villagers felt the insistence by the government on demarcating land for forests and agricultural land contrasted with traditional practices of shifting agriculture or sokshing, which is now illegal under Bhutanese law. Finding a small amount of literature on sokshing or Bhutanese shifting agriculture, I tried to find more evidence of what research into traditional management practices could bring to the Bhutanese people.

I found that UWICE has already had a renewed interest in protecting sacred natural sites. Sacred natural sites, or SNS, are local landmarks such as springs or entire forests that, by virtue of local beliefs that such sacred sites should not be disturbed, act as a de facto biological cornerstone for the environment. These sites are areas of the forest that are not cut down by default, by the villagers own volition. Anthropological studies from other contexts reveal that such beliefs may act as a unconscious reinforcement mechanism to insure a stable and sustainable environment, for instance with Native American beliefs about not overfishing or using every part of an animal to eat. When I talked to Bhutanese people about these sites, they were very eager to talk to me about these old tales. While on a hiking trip, news that I was interested in such things carried ahead of me, and a villager in a remote location gestured to me the location of one of these sacred sites where a spirit was said to dwell. Despite the fact that many people I talked to didn’t speak English, they enjoyed telling me about their culture, their beliefs in spirits of the mountains and rivers, guardians such as Kibu Lungtsen, a guardian who was depicted on the wall of a monastery near the village I studied. His dwelling was considered to be on a nearby mountain.

In addition, I uncovered a connection between these beliefs and the folklore regarding the Buddhist saint Longchen Rabjampa, the 14th century Tibetan teacher who journeyed to Bhutan and founded many monasteries throughout the country. Longchenpa was said to have purified the surrounding area of evil spirits and located the source of water for the nearby village, a sacred spring which is still venerated to this day.

Sacred landscapes abound in Bhutan, and are associated with the distinct local beliefs, history, and traditions of each area. This is the true spiritual ecology of Bhutan, not the manufactured government ideology of Gross National Happiness. What I found in Bhutan was a distinctly local, spiritual kind of relationship to the environment, one bound up with ideas about ones ancestors, Buddhist teachings, and guardian spirits. I did not hear anyone but government officials talk about Gross National Happiness, especially among rural villagers.

Instead, the villagers conveyed to me their desire for progress. One man told me about how his life was much easier now that he had a gas powered plow. Another told me how the paved road brought in more trade. Some told me they missed some things about the old days, but just as many told me they liked their life how it is right now.

I can’t help but think that this kind of balance between the modern and tradition is beginning to break down in Bhutan. Already rapid urbanization is leaving rural villages mostly populated by elderly people who do not have enough help with manual labor. The government does not place high priority on agricultural education, and the social prestige of farmers is, well, absent. All the young people I talked to want to become government workers, doctors, and professionals- not farmers. I conveyed this to some older people, and they largely agreed with me that the old Bhutan is dying.

In conclusion, the rich natural wonders of Bhutan, its vast forests and rushing mountain rivers, may be threatened by forces outside the control of standard conservation. Through a political ecology lens, we can begin to see the effect of generational changes to the landscape, such as the emergence of cash crop farming, pressures on local geography, urbanization, and unsustainable logging, in addition to government policies out of step with the reality of living a rural life in the remote Himalayas. Governments that are concerned about sustainability and economic viability of rural peasant economies should not prioritize the environment over people. Attempts to ameliorate both situations at once, like promoting ecotourism ventures, in my view, do not work as a long term strategy, and strategies such as PES schemes only put the ecological fate of landscapes in the hands of the market.

Both ecoutourism and PES schemes were proposed in the case of the village we studied. In both cases, I was the dissenting voice to the government panel. I argued for the continued viability of some traditional management strategies. My argument fell on deaf ears of some government officials that I found were heavily prejudiced against “uneducated peasants”. Not everyone I talked to felt this way, but I was very discouraged by the response among the Bhutanese elite.

Image may contain: sky, tree, grass, plant, outdoor and nature

Meanwhile, the respect for the environment lives on in Bhutanese folk tradition. Above is a water driven prayer wheel, built above a stream, said to bring good fortune and blessing at every turning of the wheel. Spring water from prayer wheels such as these is said to be holy.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, tree, outdoor and nature

Meanwhile the government has developed a variety of environmental protection strategies, such as the one in the picture above. Behind me is a tree nursery, 0.16 hectares, an experimental venture in reforestation.

Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, nature and water

As you can see in this picture, even urbanizing locations such as this town in Bumthang are surrounded by essentially untouched mountains.

This is just a general overview of the political ecology of Bhutan, which is complex and would take years of proper study to elucidate, which I endeavor to do hopefully during my anthropological career in the future.

For now, tashi delek and stay tuned for future posts about Bhutan!

 

 

The Downfalls of Relationship and Life Coach blogs

 

https://www.leadpages.net/blog/types-of-blogs/

I was thinking of writing a post that considered more of the debate surrounding string theory, and discussing my recent foray into Roger Penrose’s absolutely stunning and fascinating book Shadows of the Mind, but I decided to put that off to talk about another subject that I hope won’t offend too many people, but then again, I don’t really care. It’s just an impression of what I’ve seen on the blogosphere, or more specifically, WordPress. Namely, that its all emotional drivel, relationships, and “seekers”. In other words, ideology at its most pure.

Why do I say this? Am I not heavily invested in a relationship? Yes I am, with my girlfriend, soon to be fiancé, that is the love of my life. But why is it necessary to broadcast one’s emotions for everyone to see online? And moreover- why do other people find it actually engrossing, downright fascinating, to read about other people’s deepest emotions and problems?

Granted, most of it isn’t purely like a public diary, but some of it really is! This is what’s referred to as the “Tell-All” type of blog (#8 on the list). There are all kinds of blogs of course- “niche” blogs, blogs related to cooking, etc. But here is something I noticed, and I have verified that it is something people do on purpose, probably as a way to market themselves and make money before they have any interest in the subject- the “Life Coach” blog. Here is a quote from an article about the 10 types of Popular Blogs (link above):

Blog Type #6: The Guide
The Guide writes posts that help readers with their personal lives. Many bloggers utilizing this blog type discuss topics like personal development, life coaching, and/or spirituality.

What can I say? This is ideology at its purest, what Eva Ilouz has referred to as American therapeutic culture, or what I prefer, self-help culture. The amount of self-help blogs I see being advertised is phenomenal! And newsflash: 90% of them are a waste of your time and mine.

Q: “But Stephen, some of these people are licensed professionals. And even if they aren’t, they have good intentions”

Actually no, I don’t know if they have good intentions, as content on the internet nowadays is driven by likes, followers, and subscribers. I am pretty much driven by only my desire to get ideas out there I think are important and to find others out there with good ideas. Unfortunately, ideas aren’t sexy. Perhaps that is the name of the game. In other words, the Life Coach bloggers are also at the same time the Personal Brand bloggers, in the ceaseless logic of self-marketing that Deleuze talked about in the Postscript on the Society of Control (a piece that changed my life).

Q: “Stephen, your critique of the dominant mainstream culture only serves to reinforce it by the model of transgression. Being upset at the mainstream culture just reveals that you are motivated by either jealousy or at best your critique will only serve to reinforce the opinions of people that already agree with you”

I believe in the concept of changing people’s minds. As the old saying goes, one can only change one’s own mind. But I don’t accept that at all. Whenever I am presented with new information, I try to keep a very open mind generally. If I find that someone has superior reasoning than another person I respect, I accept that superior reasoning (rather like what is happening to me while I’m reading Roger Penrose, but that’s another story).

In short, self-help blogging and self-help culture, the social media culture of sharing stories about love and life, are part of the ideological glue of capitalist society. It tells us that stories always have happy endings, that we are good no matter what we do, that we can always be forgiven, to be positive, and most importantly, never ever ever ever bring up politics. I’m referring to a certain strand of (mature) person in America that really does have this kind of naïve optimism. I’m not referring to the largely new phenomenon of social media self-obsession- I’m referring mainly to what is called “New Age” culture, or rather the sanitized, capitalist, new equivalent of New Age culture (actually New Age culture was really a counterculture originally- I’m serious!).

I have too much self-esteem already to have other people tell me how to live my life. Even giving someone advice to me always comes with a degree of suspicion- why do you think you know what’s best for me? Perhaps their really is a self-esteem problem in America in a way, and everything that is being done to fight it by “positive reinforcement” isn’t helping.

Now, I’m not going the way of internet reactionaries, the “Red Pill” crowd, who tells you to grow up and stop being PC and stop being a special snowflake. In a way, I’m targeting people who I believe are mostly sincere, good people. But that’s not my point. My point is simply that one should maintain critical distance towards these things. Many of you already do, and for those that do- congratulations! But I would argue we need to (as always) delve even deeper into these social phenomena- much good anthropological work is being done on medical narratives and self-help narratives. Arthur Kleinman and Susan Sontag come to mind, particularly Susan’s book Illness as Metaphor. Even though its a work of critical theory though, deep in history and actual cultural analysis, even Sontag’s book could be co-opted into some kind of “self-help” narrative. I won’t give a full argument for that here, but its enough to know that good anthropological and sociological scholarship is being done now on self-help culture. Eva Ilouz stands apart as a pioneer in this field of research, with very remarkable results.

There is another blog type that is also fascinating to me- #7 “the Homer”:

No, the Homer is not a label reserved for blogs about doughnuts, nuclear power, or Duff beer.
It’s reserved for bloggers who write posts of epic proportions — posts that take readers on a 2,500+ word journey every time.

My friends have told me my posts are very long- I just checked the word count of this one- around 1,100 words so far. Not bad- not on Homer level apparently! Is this article trying to say this blog type is the “intellectual” type? No not exactly, its referring to the Odyssey -badly, they don’t mention the Odyssey, or Iliad, don’t use any metaphors about a journey, and just that Homer just wrote big books. Thus, it doesn’t matter what kind of words you use or the topic! Granted, they may be a little less pedestrian (see the example given in this section, from the blog Johnny B. Truant “The Universe doesn’t give a fuck about you”).

Well, take Johnny’s blog. Its about a big existential question- do we matter in the grand scheme of things? Maybe just to us. But he doesn’t say it this way- in fact he says it in the most pedestrian simple way possible that makes it into a self-help message-simultaneously!

“There is only now. If you have power, it’s now. If you can change anything, you have to do it now. If you want to be or to have that next great thing, be it. Have it. Take it. Own it. Do it. Become it.
Be awesome. Do epic shit.
Do it now. The clock is ticking.”

I’ll admit its funny, a little tongue in cheek. But I can’t help but be jaded at posts like these. This is a slightly more pedantic version of #YOLO, to be frank. It’s also ripping off the Power of Now (look it up- its New Age bullshit masquerading as Buddhism).

This is why in terms of REAL self-help, I can’t recommend this book enough- and I haven’t even read it! But I know that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is a very great master of the Buddhist tradition- and its his book Not for Happiness. 

Woah! Not for Happiness- a book about religion! Then what is it for?? Spirituality that is. Well, in short, wisdom. I’ll give a link to an academic talk that discusses this in further depth:

I hate to be a “Buddhist jihadi” as Khyentse Rinpoche likes to say, but I do believe that what people are searching for is really even deeper than what unenlightened beings have to say. The leap is to believe that what the Buddha had to say came from an enlightened perspective. But this is not necessary actually. One should come to one’s own conclusions about this, but I believe that people should not ignore these ancient wisdom traditions in favor of a watered down version of it that may be diluted by desires for material gain or whatever.

I will say though, that there is no guarantee of finding what you desire in Buddhism as well. There is such a thing as Buddhist fundamentalism and fanaticism:

Revisiting the Crisis in Burma and Buddhism’s Role in it

So for me, the Buddhadharma has been so helpful to me in helping me through life. But at the end of the day, what’s needed is love for other people. That is the true antidote to suffering. So are the perpetrators of genocide in Burma “true Buddhists?” Of course not, to claim otherwise would be unfair to Buddhism, ” not any more than ISIS is true Islam or the KKK is true Christianity” as Buddhism Controversy blog states.

I hope I haven’t digressed from the original point at all, but I believe I can wrap it into a coherent framework. Instead of more self-care, self-love, what this world needs is more Other-love, and Other-care. The self-obsession one sees among the younger generation in the West is just a byproduct of Western individualism. Thus we need the antidote, and what is the ultimate antidote? Trying to alleviate the suffering of others- this is true road to happiness.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness

May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

Homage to Great Compassion!

 

Physics in modern culture: more thoughts on the String Theory debate

https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/5168/why-physics-isnt-dead

It seems that every mathematician or physicist out there, whether they are working in string theory or not, has an opinion about the subject of string theory. My review of the debate currently surrounding string theory has revealed that there is an ongoing heated debate in the physics community that is revolving around a philosophical debate, that is being characterized as a debate between empiricism vs. rationalism. I will make the case here that regardless of what is actually true about this famous “Theory of Everything”, this debate has not made things more clear, but actually shrouded everything in a kind of conceptual haze that distracts from the details of the actual debate (of which I am NOT an expert).

Here is what I can say as a non-expert that I find fascinating:

The Large Hadron Collider, the famous particle accelerator, has continued to turn up nada for a proof of super-symmetry, one of the necessary predictions of string theory, and continued to make observations consistent with the Standard Model. This is fascinating because on its face value, theoretically, the Standard Model does have weaknesses, recognized weaknesses, most famously that it isn’t compatible with general relativity. String theory emerged not as a makeshift candidate for how to address these problems, but in trying to work out the problems of their own accord. So what does that mean? It means that in all the headlines you read about how “string theory may finally be killed!” it actually hasn’t definitively been killed or not killed. There has been no evidence found against it. Strangely enough, string theory has weaknesses as well, like preferring a cosmological constant that is negative or 0 (we know that the cosmological constant is in fact positive).

So it seems like we have an answer- that the Standard Model is incomplete, but string theory won’t do the job. The strangeness of this is that we really don’t have any other alternatives. Great scientists doing work in theoretical physics have looked at string theory and marveled at its elegance and how it gets rid of certain problems with quantum field theory. So it seems like everywhere we turn, we find more contradictions.

What strikes me as odd in this whole debate is that pop scientists and professional mathematicians who aren’t string theorists love to hate on string theory because of lack of evidence, but there is never any questioning of the methodology of the experiments. It seems to me that there is more room for human error in an experiment as complex as the LHC.

Let’s take a closer look at the Large Hadron Collider, which has famously announced the existence of the “God Particle”, or the Higgs Boson/field that gives particles mass.

The Large Hadron Collider, the largest single machine in the world, and therefore ever built, sits on the France-Switzerland border. Data from the LHC is analyzed by 170 computing centers in 42 countries, according to Wikipedia. Now, I’m not a math scientist [laughs], but that seems like a lot of room for potential error. At any given time, the beam pipe of the LHC needs to be almost a complete vacuum, with only the amount of hydrogen that can fit in a grain of sand allowed. With a total operating budget of $1 billion per year, and a construction cost of around $7.5 billion, the LHC has been more the object of marvel than of scientific scrutiny in the popular press.

Famously, public concern over the safety of the LHC, whether it could produce a black hole, etc. was met with scoffs and simple dismissals. Of course, it can be reasonably assumed that after years of operation, the real dangers of the LHC are not on the order of a “doomsday weapon” like in the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons, but it is fascinating to me how it seems like the single largest machine ever constructed by mankind seems to be escaping scrutiny. The best demonstration of this I can find is how the LHC is described by “Rational Wiki”, the kind of site that is frequented by Sam Harris lovers and “sciencephiles”. The description of the LHC on Rational Wiki is “the LHC is a kick-ass piece of scientific designed to replicate conditions immediately after the Big Bang…” etc. Now, it seems to me that the term kick-ass is not very rational or logical, it seems pretty emotional to me. But of course, the defenders of Rationality will always be right by definition!

There is absolutely no doubt that this subject is fascinating, but there are of course two questions that come out of this debate:

  1. Are the questions we ask worth $1 billion a year? The answer is probably yes, considering if you compare the cost to America’s skyrocketing military budget, it seems trivial in comparison. Still, gone are the days where we can verify physical theories with simple telescope observations, expect the costs to only grow for particle accelerators.
  2. What are the potential technological benefits that could accrue from this device that essentially just runs experiments? Computers have not even reached the point where they are utilizing all the quantum phenomena we know about. Is verifying string theory or quantum gravity even necessary? Of course, these kind of questions are blasphemy for the scientific establishment, but that is exactly the kind of questions currently being asked by the directors of the LHC, who after not finding any evidence of super-symmetry this year, expect to move their focus to other areas that are admittedly less “sexy”.

Proponents of the LHC will invariably point to the achievement of discovering the celebrated Higgs boson. What I want to avoid is this kind of unthinking mindset, “oooh, muons! quarks! oh my!” as well as the simple dismissal of science. Oftentimes criticisms of scientific work as simply demonized as anti-Science. In short, there needs to be the kind of Latourian anthropological analysis of particle physics that currently goes on in other fields. I probably won’t be the one to do it, as it would require such a highly specialized knowledge of the field, and I am currently pursuing other projects. But I encourage others to!

What would a science studies analysis of the LHC yield? What would the “discoveries” be? Hopefully it would simply offer a realistic portrayal of what’s going on at the LHC on a daily basis.

Here’s a ray of hope that the people at CERN are concerned about practical applications of the LHC: applying the particle accelerator to developing radiation cancer treatments for people in developing countries:

https://home.cern/about/updates/2017/11/combatting-cancer-challenging-environments

This particularly hits home for me, because my father was a radiation oncologist who worked on developing treatments for prostate cancer. My father was a research scientist with an avid interest in physics (he was a physics major) – so I am no stranger to the wonders of science and what it can do for real people. In a severe twist of irony, my father passed away of cancer, and it wasn’t able to be treated with chemotherapy. Perhaps we need to do far more in the way of preventative treatment and larger policy changes, not just finding treatments for the worst case scenario. That’s not to say I’m devaluing the work my father did- he actually contracted a case of esophageal cancer that is far harder to treat.

In short, there always needs to be theoretical work done, and I recognize that. But perhaps with more humanists working in the field, more practical applications could be developed, burgeoning costs could be contained, and maybe even theoretical debates could be seen in a new light.

But my last and probably most crucial point is this: governments find no shortage of cash to throw at the largest scientific device ever created by man. Maybe they could throw some of that money at the refugee crisis, or eliminating poverty?

What we need now more than ever is a “string theory” of humanity- of how the economy, the environment, and society form an integral whole, and our arbitrary designations of where one ends and the other begins are only, well arbitrary. If string theory is meant to show the subtle interconnections between all aspects of physical reality, then maybe we should take the poetry of this elegant theory and apply it to social reality. Can we, for instance, demonstrate the relationship between human psychology and the environment, as Gregory Bateson has done in the Steps to an Ecology of the Mind? Could we not go further, and connect the philosophy of science with a political ecology? Anthropology continues to be the field that describes these interactions as all emanating from underlying dynamics within the social field, which have been revealed to be patterned, not meaningless and random. Kinship structures, political organization, ideology, cosmology, belief, values, norms- how do these function within, say, the search for a God particle? The answer we will get is pretty straightforward, as my adviser George Mentore has suggested, the cosmology that is operating here is the search for origins, the metaphor of discovery that is at the bottom of Western understandings of the self and the cosmos. Is this metaphor inhibiting “real” discovery? Is it helping? Are there different metaphorical patterns at work? An ethnographic study would reveal this in detail

Unintelligibility, paradox, and emotion- Deleuze and conceptions of the unconscious in anthropology

This essay is going to be very haphazard and schizophrenic, cover multiple topics at once, because of the distance between what I am reading at the moment. However I will try to spin them all together into a whole, a partial whole. So- it is fashionable nowadays in anthropological literature to criticize the overuse of “Continental buzzwords” and loanwords like biopolitics and deterritorialization. Again- context! If a concept fits, use it! Sure sometimes it is overused at the expense of coming up with new theories or thinking for oneself. But I see a certain trends happening in anthropology- a trend toward totalizing, conceiving the world system as a whole, and the postmodern trend toward incommensurability, cultural relativism, and reflexivity. Zizek likes to critically oppose these two poles- one the one hand is the continuation of the Enlightenment project, of conceiving history and social movements in a dialectical way, and on the other is the Foucaultian-Deleuzian project of history as a discontinuous set of events, each contained in their own cultural world. The only thing that seems to give any sort of continuity to it all is ideology, the continual flux of ideologies and practices that come with it. I believe there are insights in both of these theories.

“Postmodern” anthropology, particularly anthropology that looks at such hot topics such as violence, continues to be a hodgepodge of various theories that are, in describing various topics, very insightful, but depending on the geographical/historical area of study, still widely variant. There are certain trendy topics- a renewed interest in the topic of the Body, and with it all the biopolitics. I am thinking of a current reader, called Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, edited by anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. The selections are not just anthropological canon, but contain excerpts from biographies, accounts of the Holocaust, Foucault and Sartre essays, an ethnography of Cambodia after the genocide, and Michael Taussig’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin. That is- anthropology and critical theory have made an interesting marriage, as applied critical theory. I find that as an anthropologist, even though my desire to contribute “new data” remains salient, there is a consistent lack of secondary or tertiary interpretation in anthropology. The closest we get is the theoretical “ontological turn”, which is another way of saying we have to think about philosophy and create philosophical anthropology. But the practice of philosophical anthropology, the interpretation and critical examination of ethnography, seems to be secondary still to the “holy canon”.

If anthropology is going to continue to make essays like “Why Do you Kill?: The Cambodian Genocide and the Dark Side of Face and Honor” using anthropological “thick description” to gain insight on deep questions about violence, there needs to be deep theoretical engagement with prior theories. Take theories of violence for example. Inclusion of Stanley Milgram’s obedience study is not enough. We have to take obedience as a sociological phenomenon, and the dynamics of obedience or hierarchy, and essentially make a model. Renato Rosaldo does a good job of doing this in Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage. There was one previous model of ritual, which he contrasts with his own model. I say- go further. Make diagrams, draw maps. How are these models of ritual as microcosmic deep culture and ritual as a busy intersection contrasting? If Rosaldo already has an article on this, then I apologize in advance, but what I’m saying is- MORE THEORY! How do these models of ritual play out in terms of models of human nature- i.e the psyche itself?

Once again, we are back in the trenches of the paradoxical unconscious, all at once possibly the realm of archetypes, dreams, drives, cognitive structures, desiring machines, languages, you name it! If one thing Lacan said is right, it is that the unconscious the biggest discovery of the 20th century, it upends the idea of the enlightened self-conscious entity at the center of the universe, or even at the center of the self. Processes as large as history flow through the individual to the point where the individual is no longer “himself”. This is why, if we are to rehabilitate “psychological anthropology” in the sense of a refocusing on cultural subjectivity, with new ways of thinking about identity, belonging, etc. we must continue to reference those theories of the past about concepts of the Self, what I have been calling Cartographies of Subjectivity. Each culture has one- a map of the soul. It is this deep map of the soul in relation to the world that has the capacity to produce emotions, and they are as informed by experience and everyday events as they are by processes of enculturation. In fact, they often serve to reinforce each other. This in other words is the process by which Ideology reproduces itself. How does the practice of headhunting in the Phillipines reproduce itself? How about the practice of renouncing worldly life in Tibet? We need to begin to think about the unconscious again, it is more important than ever in an age of subliminal advertisement, digital marketing, when capitalism has become the very fabric and texture of reality. How are revolutionary subjects produced? The subject as hunter? As wife, or how about as religious member? I think that the most important concept to remember and continue to say over and over again is Becoming. In a ritual, in a rite of passage, there is fundamentally a transformation, a passion, a becoming, one that has a spiritual pull that is hard to resist, because it is fundamentally communal. This is how one can become ready to kill, ready to serve the nation.

Now we shouldn’t reduce this to a sort of Durkheimian interpretation of ritual as a cultural glue, because its not like the ritual is a kind of “hoax” perpetrated by the elders to ensure order. This is what Nietzsche essentially thought- that religion was a way for hucksters and tricksters to profit off communal religious feeling. Certainly some of that goes on, but it happens much more deeply, at the level of understanding who one is in relation to other people. That is given to you very early. If one has grown up in the environment in which taking another’s life in ritual revenge is compensation for a loved one’s loss, that is simply one’s way of looking at the world- in other words, the spirit of the jaguar actually visits them, they feel it. This is the power of perception over the human mind. And this is what we as moderners have to be burdened with- the knowledge that these mystical experiences, which are quite normal for the “savage”, if experienced, are at best contrived. Castenada could get himself to believe that spirit of the Yaqui had actually visited him until he made a certain leap of faith.

If postmodern anthropology seems too “spacey” to neo-Marxists and neo-materialists, it is because they simply have never had a near-death experience, and don’t realize the way in which for much of the world what matters is not what is right here before us, but the beyond. This pull of the spiritual is a strong temptation, just as the pull of a Communist utopia is a strong spiritual ideal for many people. A transformed world- isn’t that what many people are looking for?

This line of thinking, of criticizing desire for revolution as millenarian, has some legitimate critiques by Marxist thinkers, but my point isn’t to discount the relevancy of material/historical analysis in anthropological thinking- its only to emphasize again that the convictions of an anthropologist, of any writer or philosopher, are fundamentally human or spiritual convictions. The desire to stop violence, to understand or prevent violence, systemic or otherwise, to people and our earth, is a sentiment current anthropology shares as a humanistic discipline. If anthropology is going to take its role seriously as an intellectual enterprise, not an enterprise in remaking the world, it should provide the applied anthropologists of the world with such a deep appreciation for culture as to evince a becoming in the subject. In my case, I desire in the reader a becoming-revolutionary, a becoming-minoritarian, as any good Deleuzian would have it.

At the end of the day, what I’m talking about is the intellectual’s choice of subject matter or area of study- there needs to be not just intellectual commitment, but human commitment. At the end of the day, real people become affected by anthropology, as the writings of Darrell Posey, Michael Taussig, or anyone would explain quite clearly. There is often a certain bond with the host community or family that is very deep. This is not necessary however. I think that the real goal of anthropologist should be to try to shift the culture at home. To hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask- is this all there really is?

The specter of Marx in anthropology

Anthropology, as a humanistic enterprise, has always had (except for periods of extreme empiricism/biologism and certain isolated schools) a humanitarian mission since its real inception by Franz Boas. With the rise (and maybe fall) of postmodernism in anthropology, which has been always in the context of how to get cultural relativism and the depiction of other cultures right, the question has become not how to depict other cultures, but how to not get it wrong, and see within ourselves as writers of culture possible sources of bias. However, given the enormous influence of political economy, globalization studies, etc. anthropology has still to ask the question- what about Marx?

Anthropology COULD normatively assign Marx the category of another social theorist of the 19th century, and integrate his theories as just one more theory to study along with Weber and Durkheim. Or, it could (and I believe it already has, based on my experience in anthropology) take Marx seriously. I believe the answer why it should is not only an empirical question that someone like David Harvey or David Graeber could answer with judicious use of anthropological data and explanation of the rise of the neoliberal economic order and why it has influenced every local culture. There are a myriad books on this subject, from Graeber’s Debt: A 5000 year History to Wallerstein’s Introduction to World Systems Analysis- the right anthropologist’s have already done a good job of doing this. They have already analyzed colonialism from the right historical perspective, looked at it from the perspective of the colonized with postcolonialism, applied critical analysis. But what I don’t think they have had done a good job of doing is taking philosophy seriously, or justifying their project on a level of fundamentals, ethics, etc.

At first glance, this statement should appear nonsensical, because why wouldn’t anthropology try to accurately describe the postcolonial neoliberal reality of the 21st century? Haven’t they done enough by appealing to notions of human rights, etc?

The political problems of the 1950s and 1960s still haunts anthropology. During the Cold War and the Red Scare, many anthropologists worked for the government to understand the Communist threat, and many of afraid of being accused of having Marxist leanings. But while good critiques have already been made of the sort of public anthropology that sells their soul to corporations, works with the military in Iraq to understand local culture in order to further American foreign policy objectives, anthropologists remain reticent to unabashedly in writing critique capitalism. Now, I say this knowing that some anthropologists (like Graeber) remain professed and “out” anarchists, and many anthropologist’s writings are geared toward working against the established order of things.

But why Marx? Because anthropology still has a commitment at the end of the day, to Fanon’s wretched of the earth”. We remain committed to those who lack the voice to speak for themselves, the powerless. And this commitment, which does not exclude the First World as much as the Third World may be its focus, is fundamentally, and this cannot be denied- a spiritual commitment. This is what Marx himself failed to grasp. Why should he care? Why have compassion at all? Why not embrace the individualism of the modern age?

A “rationalist” or “pragmatic” reason may be that one could easily be oneself in the lumpen, in rags, and that as capitalism ravages our planet, we are beginning to personally feel the heat in our middle class dens (literally). But it is something that we have to own up to- that a commitment to the powerless among us is a fundamentally social commitment, a commitment to what philosopher Slavoj Zizek likes to refer to as the commons- our common social and ecological substance. This is why we cannot pretend that at least in this more deep sense (maybe not in the sense of previous incarnations of the idea in political movements of the 20th century) that the study of society and sociality must be socialist in orientation. To ignore the insights of Marx in history, in the fundamental difference between the haves and have nots, the dynamics between labor and capital, is to be blind to the immensity of human suffering on this planet that is structural, and caused by our economic system working for the few, not the many

Short reflection on current trends in popular ideology: Jordan Petersen v. Sam Harris

In terms of popular intellectuals, I see Sam Harris as the archetype of the view to be rejected, for a number of reasons. His background, coming from cognitive science, is essentially a positivist “scientism”, and his views on how beliefs are constructed flow from this paradigm. Harris essentially views the phenomenon of belief in terms of chemical reactions (a reductionist point of view)- when a person believes something, it sends out a positive response from the brain, a dopamine reaction, that creates a kind of feedback loop. In short, it feels good to believe something, even if it isn’t true, especially if that belief makes one feel like one has a life after death, etc. What is the problem with this belief? It is just a modern neuroscientific version of an atheist argument. The problem is Harris abstracts it as a model for all belief, which is where he goes wrong. Harris does not include more complex psychological processes that go with the creation of belief on levels more complex than the neurological- he does not include the familial, the cultural, or the metaphysical (I will explain what I mean by metaphysical or existential). Belief, say in what a human being is relative to the universe, is fundamentally patterned by social group, or culture. Harris knows this, but his model of how culture influences belief is limited/not fleshed out. In short, Harris believes he is writing from a privileged lens, the scientific lens, which is not hampered by superstition or any sort of belief system, even though he has an ideological agenda. That ideological agenda goes as follows- religion, any sort of belief in God or the afterlife, is a BAD belief, it is detrimental to humanity. This is despite the fact that many societies have been fundamentally organized by religious beliefs. Many of these deficits in Harris’ argument are now being pointed out by Dr. Jordan Petersen, a professor of psychology, who includes in his perspective anthropological perspectives, as well as Jungian theory on how humans are driven to find meaning in the world through myth. The inclusion of Jung is a big step in improving the popular conception of religion, which is being heavily influenced by the New Atheists like Dawkins, who idolize science and scientific belief as a new worldview that should overturn religion (an essentially 19th century way of thinking, rationalist in character).

Peterson starts by deconstructing the model of humans as being essentially irrational until the Enlightenment, and then through science became rational people. However, I find his approach to be lacking rhetorically. Peterson starts (in an interview) by referencing the fact that religion is not always the motivator of conflict. A good start. However, his evidence is that chimps also go to war. I find this to be a shoddy use of evidence, given that the close cousin of the chimp, the bonobo, is essentially docile. The book War, Peace, and Human Nature by Douglas Fry is an essential reference on this topic, however Petersen probably is unaware of this book, given that its in the modern anthropological canon. Petersen relies on writers such as Jung, who try to move away from the positivist doxa, but more prescient deconstructions of scientism exist now, in the works of Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Zizek, not to mention most of the anthropological canon (Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, etc.) Much more has been written on the structure of the human mind by these theorists. Petersen’s book is called Maps of Meaning– I would find an even more enlightening book (perhaps one I will eventually write) be Maps of the Mind (or Cartographies of Subjectivity, in academic speak). Petersen’s book explores how humans make sense of the world, through religion, etc. What I would explore is how each of these different ideologies (or great thinkers) conceives of the human itself- how does Jung think of the mind? Freud? Then go back to Christian conception of the subject (the soul), contrast it with the modern conception of the subject- in short, a complete version of what Foucault attempted to do (Foucault was limited in his archaeology of the subject to the Western world, but still got pretty far with his work the History of Sexuality). I would try to include more cross-cultural sources- an encyclopedia of how humans think of themselves.

What I’m trying to get at, in a matter of speaking, is that trying to form a way of thinking, a model, about how we think, from a purely scientific perspective, is essentially reductive and limited- it leads back to one source- the baseline of atomic reactions- while a more holistic way of thinking is unending in scope. Its also much more interesting. Sam Harris never fails to be reductive in this way, whenever he tackles some phenomenon related to belief or religion- take Islam and fundamentalism for example- he always reaches the wrong conclusion for this essential reason. He can never include any other reason for why people believe the way they do in his frame of reference. We must always remember the essential wisdom of Buddhist metaphysics- the web of causes and conditions is so complex and multifaceted, it can only truly be comprehended by an omniscient being. Sam Harris always follows the reductionist pattern when talking about Islam because of this- “they hate us because they hate us”.

All human beings have these kind of cosmologies or “maps of meaning”, even if they aren’t religious. We have to because we are, in Heideggerian terms, Dasein or “beings thrown into the world”. Everyone knows the story- we search for the reason why we are here, look up into the stars and wonder why things are the way they are. This fundamental existential level is only conceived through language, which is taught at an early age, and thus all belief is conditioned by culture. It is good to see a real intellectual (Peterson) introduce these concepts to a wider audience and receive a level of respect, and try to drown out the chorus of New Atheist science-worshippers.