The all-too-human search for meaning

When I watch this video about “religious people and scientists finding middle ground”, I find myself not only trying, in terms of my own subjective position and beliefs, trying not to “identify” with either side of this equation. This video is probably immensely helpful for people that in Western society who may be fundamentalists or avid atheists to be respectful or compassionate toward the “other side.” Nevertheless, I find certain subjectivities and certain philosophical points of view not represented here. I am not complaining about this in the interest of a kind of identity politics: far from it. If a fundamentalist Muslim were on this panel, or a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, there would not be this much agreement or at least good spiritedness. In fact, in this panel of rather liberal-minded religious leaders and only one scientist (the paleontologist) who seems to be avidly a staunch atheist, I find the conversation going down conventional 21st century paths.

Rather, my question is: what does it mean to be having conversations like this? Is it because morality is “innate in humanity” as the paleontologist suggested? Is it evolutionarily based? Or is culture constructed through moments like this? I argue that media like this are representations of performative tolerance, our liberal ideological era’s main tenet, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues. And that is not necessarily, as Zizek argues, a bad thing! Perhaps pure tolerance is the framework around which these people are gathered together, but it is also an all-too-human human desire to learn from other people, to listen, to be compassionate, to feel compassionate.

But is there really such a wide birth in the subjective positions being represented here? There is more culturally in common with a pastor and a scientist than most people would care to admit. The outlier is obviously the Buddhist monk, who seems at the end of the video to capture the attention of the other listeners when talking about dying and human suffering. That immanent attention to human suffering is not a language most Westerners are used to hearing on an everyday basis. We are much more comfortable arguing whether God exists or not.

Nevertheless, I have to admit, even given my own attachments to Buddhism, that the Zen monk is not culturally as far removed from the pastor as, say, the native shaman is from any of the people represented in this video, or rather a member of a society that is isolated from modern mainstream society. Take any member of a society from New Guinea, from the isolated Himalayan village, and add them to this conversation, and one will find that the common language of discussion (not just English) and necessary cultural background for even participation in this “debate” is not present.

When a social scientist or a student of culture sees a video like this, he not only sees the cultural dividing lines between the different ideological positions being represented, but he also sees the subjectivities that are represented, the cultural backgrounds from which these people come from.  In modern society, one’s subjectivity is almost always represented by what ideology one holds, rather than what community one belongs to. In Clifford Geertz’ work on contemporary Indonesia, Geertz observed this rationalization of religion firsthand, and the increasing division between Muslim conservative fundamentalists and indigenous reform-minded traditionalists. What this growing ideological divide obscures is the fact that this growing ideological divide in modern Indonesia is contemporaneous with a much more problematic process: modernization and the uprooting of communities themselves.

What anthropologists refer to as traditional societies do not have a common language for participation in a debate like this because it is pointless. Belief in something is not as important as the shared customs and traditions of one’s village, one’s ancestors. In many indigenous societies, this kind of “ancestor veneration” goes to the extent of venerating tradition itself for its own sake. This kind of generalization can only say so much, but it is a fact that the embodied process of creating kin is more important on a daily basis for indigenous societies than belief in this or that metaphysical construct. If beliefs are held so dear by traditional societies, it is because they represent something that is very strong indeed: a seemingly unshakable bond to the way of life that has been passed for generations. This is especially strong in contemporary indigenous societies throughout the globe.

This video ends with the modern liberal tolerant mantra: “It is important to question one’s own beliefs.” This is completely antithetical to the traditional society’s own core ethic: one’s beliefs that were passed down through one’s ancestors are sacrosanct. Sure, modern indigenous people, say in the US, are exposed to all of the ideological fronts and modern forms of scientific knowledge. However, even the modern indigenous person largely stands outside of these cultural debates. Her own traditions teach something far different: that we must learn to love the people who are actually in our lives, rather than the people across the hill. We must learn to love the earth beneath our own feet. We should not seek a metaphorical model of exploration: exploration of different lands, different worlds. Rather, we should be content to be right here. It is, in Deleuzian terms, a territorialist model, rather than a model of deterritorialization.

It should be noted that there is a critique, now parroted by the political right wing, but also by philosophers like Nietzsche, that this kind of tolerance and open-mindedness leads naturally toward believing nothing at all, to a kind of nihilism. Perhaps that is not the right way to put it. The belief in tolerance as a kind of “cultural praxis” is stronger than ever, and it is performatively enacted by members of modern society, even if the pastor may be pissed off by the paleontologist, and vice versa. I believe that is because there is an underlying dimension, a cultural and therefore necessarily political dimension, to this debate that is not being addressed. The paleontologist said it best when he began by stating that he has been combating Creationism his whole career. Why is this the case? Creationism is dangerous, in this scientist’s mind, not only for spreading beliefs that aren’t “testable” (a scientist’s favorite go-to discourse), but for the fact that evolution is *empirically useful*. It goes somewhere. It reproduces invention and progresses biology and science as we know it. The scientist, by fearing Creationism, fears not only fundamentalism, but what comes along with it: lack of appreciation for the empirical work of scientists like himself, but also the spread of potentially dangerous beliefs (like vaccines causing autism). A scientist like this is concerned not only with defending things such as modern medicine, but also probably defending against the political side of fundamentalism: the increased potential to believe in authoritarian regimes. From this perspective, its very interesting to see a Zen monk being represented from a highly industrialized country with a history of authoritarianism, rather than somewhere from the “Third World.”

What do members of the Third World have to say about these defenses of modern medicine? Well, if they are in Africa, they may believe that modern medicine is a godsend, or they may secretly or openly distrust those members of the international community forcing it upon them at the same time as they are meddling in the affairs of their country. The gap between worlds here is immense, and problems like these are what anthropologists deal with on a daily basis. The debate and cultural dividing lines represented in this video seem tame, if not silly, by comparison.

From an anthropologist’s perspective, the cultural dividing lines represented here are not the real lines that divide the world. The real lines that divide the world are between the modern and non-modern worlds, the former colonies and former colonizer countries, the First World and the Third World. Where is that debate? Furthermore, even within the confines of this country, this video and debate do not get to the heart of the problem dividing religious people from scientists: it is essentially a byword for the divide between conservatives and liberals, between Left and Right. Even then, there is more in common between them that meets the eye as well. Distractions inside of distractions…

If anything, this is more evidence that it is almost impossible without training to see one’s own culture in real perspective. The reason is because it takes a difficult look at one’s own subject position and realizing what about it may be not unique, or how it may simply be the product of history. Perhaps that even extends to your personality: now that is an uncomfortable thought for many. These are the kind of tough questions we need to ask ourselves if we truly want to begin a dialogue with people who are “Other”.

A final note: what I see in this debate, even from the Zen monk, is a lot of “I” speak. Perhaps that is the language everyone feels comfortable with. If an anthropologist was in this debate, he would probably make everyone uncomfortable with a lot of “we” speak. If we are going to have debates like this one, we should realize the historical and cultural context in which it is situated: the Scopes “monkey” trial, the “moral majority”, the Puritans, just to name a few American examples. We could also reference the French Revolution and the state-sponsored Cult of Reason, and anti-clericalism in general during the Enlightenment. If anything, I just want one social scientist or historian on panels like these: someone who is used to looking at humans either diachronically or synchronically. Perhaps that is too much to ask for: what does a historian know about religion? “That isn’t the purpose of debates like this!” And so it goes on…

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A defense of skepticism

 

As an anthropologist, I am usually a proponent of respect for “non-Western worldviews” (whatever that means). However, I noticed something problematic in the comments section of this video by the channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. This video is a deconstruction of the Gaia channel/streaming platform, which is purportedly a channel devoted to alternative medicine and paranormal subjects, but Genetically Modified Skeptic claims it is a essentially a scam. I believe he is correct, and I believe that Gaia is promoting pseudoscience.

However, in the comments section of this video, the argument that this channel is simply “counteracting scientism, which is a new religion”, trying to counterbalance Western rationalism, and promoting non-Western worldviews was prevalent. I saw almost verbatim all of these arguments being employed. I argue that there is a significant difference between counterbalancing rationalism and the Western dualistic extreme of irrationalism, and that categories such as this are a product of the Western mind and its long philosophical history of the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, reason vs. passion, etc. Spirituality as it is understood by the purveyors of New Age spirituality and New Age pseudoscience is fundamentally different from non-Western worldviews. Furthermore, the Marxist argument of religion as false consciousness can be legitimately employed in this regard, if one takes into account the full and original purview of Marxian thought on religion.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about how leftists and legitimate intellectuals should distance themselves from the fundamentally irrationalist ideas currently in vogue among some of the “politically correct” Left. Among this crowd, the ideas of postmodernism and deconstruction have been hijacked to advocate for a kind of ecological New Age spiritualism. Funnily enough, the essence of this problematic is found in the “Gaia hypothesis”, a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock, in which the Earth can be considered a self-regulating biological “organism”. This theory has been co-opted by advocates of New Age spirituality who interpret the hypothesis as a neo-Pagan religion. Furthermore, from a theoretical and scientific point of view, the theory has flaws. One example of a flaw in this theory is that as a self-regulating system, the earth should seemingly be able to adapt to climate change. On a purely semantic level, calling this theory the “Gaia hypothesis” opens up a Pandora’s Box of anthropomorphization and attributions of sentience to entities that do not have any. Zizek goes on to argue that the Gaia hypothesis fits within the capitalist ideological framework of environmentalism as an essentially individual problem: we must “get back to nature” rather than looking structurally at the concrete environmental struggles and policies that shape the planet. Rather than looking at the planet as simply an ecosystem, the Gaia hypothesis stretches this hypothesis and essentializes the concept of ecosystem as inherently stable and permanent, instead of fragile and vulnerable. Viewing Earth as the “providing Mother”, while it has deep roots in ancient religions across the world, is no longer tenable in the Anthropocene, in which human-induced climate change can change the very dynamics that have structured the earth on geological time scales.

The Gaia platform obviously embraces this double-edged sword of a concept. But the concept is not without its merits on a purely formal level: seeing things as interconnected is not wrong. However, the manner in which they are interconnected is ignored in favor of a holistic, largely “essentialist” spiritual worldview. Rather than seeing those interconnections as a potential problem (like the cascading effects of climate change), interconnection has become the buzzword of the New Age movement.

Genetically Modified Skeptic does a good job of summarizing what Gaia is all about, so I won’t repeat his assessment. Rather, I’d like to focus in on why Gaia is not promoting “non-Western worldviews”, but rather cultural appropriations of non-Western worldviews jumbled together with scientific claims that are untenable.

One of Gaia’s video categories on their streaming service is “yoga”. What hasn’t been said before about the cultural appropriation of yoga by white, Western liberals? I’ll try my best to summarize. Essentially, yoga became popular during the 1960s during the counterculture movement as more people began to explore Eastern spirituality. Because these Americans were “open-minded people”, they did not want to adhere to the strict traditions of a particular system, but rather saw yoga as a “consciousness-expanding tool”. The downside of this worldview is that what made yoga effective in the first place, as a system of meaning within a larger cultural framework, dissolved in favor of yoga as either a general spiritual “healing technique” or a purely physical exercise. Sure, the buzzwords about “enlightenment” and “opening the soul” remains, but not in its original forms. One could argue that yoga never really “worked” in this regard, but the fact remains that the proper respect to the original traditions that practiced yoga (Hinduism and Buddhism) was not given. Furthermore, the idea of practicing yoga as a person who is not a devotee of these original faiths is as alien as taking the eucharist without being a Catholic, or wearing a yarmulke without being Jewish as a fashion statement. It is basically a statement of personal choice, a hobby rather than a spiritual commitment.

Gaia enthusiasts may vehemently disagree with me when I say that they do not practice as a spiritual commitment, or may argue that they are free to practice yoga as they please, and that yoga is not the explicit property of Hindus or Buddhists. However, I argue that they are not practicing yoga at all, but rather a distorted version of it. Furthermore, I argue, at least within the confines of Tantric Buddhism, that yoga was never meant to be general practice among the general populous, but it was designed as an esoteric practice only for the most advanced adepts and solitary hermits. There is a reason for this: the original practice of yoga involves practices such as doing 100,000 prostrations, not putting your leg over your head. Yoga in its secular form has become an interesting form of exercise, but that is not the original meaning of the word yoga.

Furthermore, while modern yogis and yoga enthusiasts may claim they are combining their spiritual practice into their practice of yoga, and employ some of the same terminology including chakra, without the context of chakra within a larger Tantric worldview, which involves either devotion to a specific god in the Hindu tradition, or the realization of the body as a Buddha body in the Buddhist tradition, the word chakra and the positions of the wheels in the body is virtually meaningless. There is no heart chakra, no real physical heart chakra. It is metaphor for spiritual realization: this is evident enough in Buddhist texts. Some New Age yogic practitioners seem to think that there is some sort of real essential thing called a heart chakra, as the also believe in a real thing called the Self. This is why New Age yoga tends to veer toward the Hindu tradition: but I digress.

From this example, it is evident that New Age spirituality is categorically different from “non-Western worldviews”. There are certain patterns of thought of a Western mind are so deeply embedded that something akin to a “subconscious cultural divide” exists between Western and non-Western cultures. Even when a Western mind seeks to consciously overcome these patterns of thought, the Western cannot help but systematize, analyze, and apply rational systems to what are essentially folkloric and customary habits. I argue that it is hard for the Western mind to understand the philosophical niceties and metaphors that surround the Eastern philosophical mindset. Spirituality among Westerners has always been literal: Gods really exist, spirits are real and tangible if they want to be. From my ethnographic experience, culturally Buddhist people from Asian countries do not experience belief in the same way. Rather, a pragmatic attitude prevails about spirituality: if it works, I believe it. Therefore, there are practices related to spirits, demons, etc. but they are practical endeavors made to appease rather ill-defined malevolent beings to ensure a practical purpose: a good harvest, etc. This is the way it has always been for many traditional societies. The Western rationalist cannot help but make these organic, living breathing traditions into stale, systematized concrete ideas. For instance, the idea of a “guardian spirit” in a tree or forest prevalent among animist societies is intimately connected, as Roy Rappaport and Darrel Posey argue, to concrete traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and specific knowledge about certain environments and cycles. Rather than a vague, holistic idea of “being connected to nature” (a product of real alienation from nature), traditional societies experience being connected to nature as a pragmatic, real, and everyday reality. Knowing the cycles of the seasons is experienced directly, as a part of their practical means of subsistence, as well as their larger epistemological and cosmological framework. However, the Western project and process of abstraction of these experienced cosmologies reifies these belief systems into terms like “animism”. Therefore, the project of “neo-Paganism” “neo-animism” is in vain, because the material substrate in which these belief systems were embedded is gone.

In conclusion, New Age spirituality is a product of the alienated Western consciousness, and in many ways can be interpreted as a product of capitalism and a longing for wholeness that is not essential to the human mind. As hard as it is to swallow, the “search for meaning” that drives Western people living in industrialized countries to seek answers to philosophical questions is not a cultural universal. Where I believe this skeptic channel could adapt their argument is viewing these people not as inherently biologically “insane”, but as the product of complex cultural and historical dynamics that have been given many names: the “Death of God”, the great disenchantment, or more concretely, the rise of feelings of nihilism driven by sociological ills in capitalist society.

 

Politics as herd mentality: stepping back from the crowd

Can even an empancipatory political movement stifle the growth and development of an individual? Can microfascisms in a social group develop and completely dominate a particular subjectivity? I argue that particularly in terms of authoritarian socialism and to some extent in any political mass movement, this is not only encouraged but the modus operandi.

While not falling into Nietzschean extremes of denigrating the ideology of socialism as inherently a “slave morality”, the concept of the herd mentality should be resuscitated  by the critical philosophical project. Why? Because for many people caught in the snare of mass culture, politics is just part and parcel of that grand project of creating a mass culture. Liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism: these are all more than just political leanings. They are cultures, pastimes, and more importantly ways of life. They are modes of subjectivity that furthermore aim to completely take over the individual.

Above all, they are simply diversions, illusions of creating a perfect world. Sure, one of them (in my view non-authoritarian socialism) holds the keys to creating a structurally sound society, but often fixing society’s problems is the end-all and be-all of a political person’s life. But what do I mean when I say diversions?

I mean that when libidinal energy is invested in a political structure, the motive of that libidinal energy can not only be compassionate, but also a kind of dangerous ressentiment no matter what side of the political aisle you are on. Politics can make people do terrible things: it can warp and twist the mind to do things normally unthinkable in the name of “the greater good”. Perhaps we need to revitalize the “smaller good”. In this way, I partly disagree with Zizek’s re-prioritization of the global as opposed to the local. While issues like climate change certainly require global action and cooperation, one of the reasons why I believe the “postmodern condition” has been exacerbated is because of the continuing abstraction of daily life. The politicization of every aspect of life and the continuing complete totalization of life into the mediascape must be fought. Other, pre-modern forms of subjectivity should be encouraged and revitalized to this effect. In particular, attachment to the land, locality, folk belief, and religion is the last thing that the capitalist world order wants. The capitalist world order wants to eventually drown the entire world in one monoculture: it will not just adapt as Zizek believes. While there is a danger of new ethnic folk nationalisms, these are fast becoming anachronisms. The preservation of life as it has been, “folk life”, is a necessity to counteract the effects of globalizing monoculture. Politics is just one way in which one can become ensnared and forget life outside the comings and goings of Power.

When the comings and goings of History and Power seem too much for you- LET GO. Let go of it all. Watch it as the effervescent shadow play of kabuki theater. It is all impermanent, it means nothing. If you feel called to act, act, but still recognize that your actions are like drops of water on an endless beach: they will be washed away by the unrelenting tide of eternity.

This may seem nihilistic or defeatist, and I’m sure some will accuse of “New Age” ramblings, or worse of having the “privilege” to look at everything from a cosmic perspective. But more than that, I want people to be able to look at the rush and hustle and bustle and take a minute to go beyond the troubles of their lives or the world. Step back, and see what can be accomplished when you aren’t a part of a group or a crowd. Let life happen. Listen: be aware of the sights. I address this those I know in my generation who I would describe as brilliant, political people: let go. Find yourself. Stop trying for a moment to save the world. This generation has many troubles, and one of them I feel is the inability to really be with themselves. I hope- no, I pray- that they find some kind of spiritual life. To me, it does not matter what that is, but that is one reason why I feel that something is lacking in this generation compared to say the Boomer Generation. The Boomers tried to find themselves: the Beatniks, the hippies, the Eastern religious acolytes. Our generation seems only lost in comparison. Perhaps I am too quick to judge, but I feel that one of the culprits may be the overpoliticization of our lives. As part of the Iraq War generation, we feel that we have an obligation to rid ourselves of the bad politics of our forbears. I assent to this feeling. But there is a latent problem in this mentality as well, and that is the lack of inward focus necessary to achieving true individual development. When I look around, I see Deleuze’s prophecy coming true all the same, even if problem isn’t consumerism:

Dividuals. No individuals to be found

Trump is a symptom, not the disease

Why is Trump so terrifying for many people? Because he represents the ascendancy of the anti-immigrant far right to mainstream American politics. He is an almost openly racist President, as opposed to a closeted one.
But what is different about Trump that wasn’t already embodied in someone like Ted Cruz or the Tea Party? What’s scary about Trump is that he represents the non-“moderate” wing of the Republican party winning. McCain was a notorious “maverick” and spoke softly, and Mitt Romney also presented himself as a moderate. But those were lies.
Furthermore, past US presidents were also notoriously racist, and in recent memory Nixon particularly comes to mind. The war in Vietnam was a fundamentally racist endeavor. Reagan’s anti-welfare campaign was racist at its core (he popularized the term ‘welfare queen’).
And yet its the anti-immigrant xenophobic rhetoric and actions that make Trump the pariah in the mainstream media (CNN) and has polarized the nation. And yet, when Obama became dubbed “deporter in chief” it barely got any news coverage.
I’ve seen Trump top the list of worst presidents of all time after only 2 years in office. But it would be a victory for the right and for Trump if he managed to make us lose our collective historical memory and forget the horrible policies of the Bush and Reagan administrations. The scandals, the corruption, the racism: now its all out in the open. This is a boon for the left, not a doomsday scenario. The worst possible take from this is that we need to return to the “moderate center”. It was the moderate center that gave us Trump in the first place by their continual failures.
A hardline immigration stance has been a mainstay of Republican politics for many years. So why is Trump such an abominable figure? Why do people continue to absolve people like John McCain, who voted with Trump 83% of the time? If Trump is a nightmare, and McCain is a hero, then by that logic Trump is 83% hero.
The problem is, to the media, its style over substance, rhetoric over policy, sound bytes over reality. McCain was no leader of the resistance, and neither is Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi, who continue to kow tow to Trump’s demands for greater military spending and refused to fight when it came to his nominations for significant positions.
Trump is the symptom of the rot in American society, not the cause.
The veiled rhetoric of the Reagan administration (welfare queens) is being gradually replaced by overtly racist messaging. But at the same time, we should understand that the actions of the Trump administration fall under the historical category of protectionism, which has a long history in the US as well. It is not the first time immigration policy has been the focus of US politics (the Chinese exclusion act) nor will it be the last. As hard as it is for liberals to admit, illegal immigration is a problem, and as much we must be committed to the human rights of refugees and international migrants escaping poverty and war from third world countries, we must see it as a problem so we can attack the problem at its source. Illegal immigration is driven partly by US policies on trade and past US interference in Central and Latin American governments. This has continued to this day, with Hillary Clinton supporting a coup in Honduras in 2009 that drove instability in the region and caused a wave of migration from Honduras.
So in a bizarre way, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama helped get Trump elected!
Perhaps it was even more direct than that. Wikileaks released cables that provide evidence that Clinton ran what is known as the pied piper strategy because Clinton polled more favorably against far right candidates than moderates (because there isn’t that big of a difference between them).
To astute political historians and avid leftists, this all comes as no shock. What may come as a shock is that despite all this, we still need to work within the confines of the existing democratic system. That is where the legitimate fight is, and if you care about short-term policy victories as well as long-term political strategy, we still need to play the political game and defeat Trump electorally. Somehow, we should not kow tow to the “lesser of two evils” mantra that brought us to the situation we are in today. Nevertheless, we should realize that leftists can’t win every battle, and sometimes the ideological ground is not ripe for success. The majority of Americans supported the Vietnam War, for instance: there was a massive protest movement, but politics reflect the ideological state of a country. A revolution will never work if there is not the cultural groundwork for it.
Therefore, the ascendancy of social democrats and social democracy (and even the term “democratic socialism” is an immensely positive trend in American politics today. Not only does it represent a real political alternative to the politics of yesteryear, it is a starting point from which to achieve real radical change.
The recognition that the Trump administration represents something new and dangerous is a good thing for the previously “apolitical” American mind, but it is based fundamentally on an ideological obscuring of the real problems. Perhaps that is why Al Jazeera ran an opinion piece on the new Spike Lee movie BlackKKKlansmen that was a very strident and vehement critique. To some extent, the movie does feed into the larger liberal mentality of “Trump bad, Democrats good”. But the problem is that we shouldn’t completely dismiss what the Trump administration is: it is the ascendancy of the far-right. David Duke did endorse Trump. It is frustrating that blockbuster movies can’t focus on Palestine or other more disturbing human rights issues, but that simply wouldn’t make good material for a hit political comedy.
The truth is, Americans always look at their own problems first. Trump dominates every headline of CNN and MSNBC, and meanwhile Yemen is in tatters. World news simply doesn’t matter as much to the insular and largely content American populous. If Al Jazeera and a professor of Iranian studies is frustrated by lack of focus on imperialism, he should recognize that that is the uphill ideological battle that America has been fighting for a century. Imperialism is one of the fundamental contradictions of modern global politics: it is our collective blindspot, and this isn’t a uniquely American problem. Europe is also to blame. Tony Blair shares the blame with Bush for Iraq.
So as bad as Trump is, we should recognize that when viewed through the lens of foreign policy, there is no recognizable difference between him and any other administration. In fact, Trump may even be slightly better when it comes appeasement of North Korea, preventing conflict with Russia, etc.
The Trump-Russia story is the pinnacle of what is wrong with liberal politics today. A long and worn out legal battle involving Trump administration officials and an unlikely impeachment over “meddling” obscures the actual policies of Trump vis-a-vis Russia, which are largely hawkish. In Lacanian-Zizekian terminology, Trump-Russia represents the objet-petit-a, the unattainable desire, of the liberal establishment, and the traumatic kernel of the Real that America refuses to recognize continues to be our involvement in the Middle East during the Bush administration and beyond. The true weight of the moral atrocities that occurred there, and continue to occur there, due to the US and our imperialist meddling, have yet to be fully realized. Therefore, the “political awakening” to the Trump administration, and the rise in activism around it, is a mixed blessing, because it represents the possibility for further collective forgetting and mis-remembering.
To use a spatial analogy, things that occur in our own backyard, such as mass shootings, far right hate group protests, have a direct traumatic impact because they are imprinted into the American collective memory because of literal spatial proximity. The deaths of hundreds of thousands overseas, on the other hand, remain a statistic, separated by oceans and borders, only made real by TV broadcasts. The American collective imagination always lags by a few decades: the reason 911 was so traumatic was not only did it kill so many people, but America was open to outside attack after so many decades. Our lashing out at this king of offenses in Afghanistan and Iraq was the typical hysterical reaction: an eye for a leg. It is the logic of revenge writ large, born out by America’s fundamentally xenophobic ethos. Our borders are sacred, our sovereignty is supremely sacred, so much so that we can violate other countries sovereignty to maintain our own. In short, it is the logic of America First. 
Thus, we should recognize that while Trump is vocalizing the axiomatic of American exceptionalism and supremacy, this logic was inherent to American politics and history, perhaps since the beginning (Manifest Destiny). Trump is a rule, not an exception, the logical culmination of centuries of American history. It is traumatic only because it is subjectively experienced as a present reality and because it is not viewed in the proper historical context. The present is always more shocking than the past: the immigration crisis is more worrying than Vietnam, because it already happened. But if we want to get out of this mess, we need a properly materialist and firm grasp of history (perhaps even a dialectical one).
Is Trump a fascist? Yes, but Nixon was a fascist, and Reagan was a fascist, and so was Obama and Clinton too. They are all fascists of one form or another, if we are going to play lose with terminology. More aptly put, the American system is more fundamentally authoritarian than the establishment would like you to believe. This should not create more political apathy, but a truly revolutionary change from within: within our consciousnesses and minds, in order to break the chains of mental enslavement to the status quo

The psychology behind UFOs: why do we believe?

UFO Skeptic Psychology article

In the era of the Simulacrum, no one can tell what’s true anymore. We couldn’t even tell what was true with our own eyes before with the faulty nature of memory and perception, but now with digital editing, computer simulation, and enhanced visual techniques, telling a genuine from a hoax even in terms of a picture of a mundane object is becoming an increasingly difficult task.

So picture yourself walking down a country road at night, and you see something that looks like a flying saucer in the air. Are you more likely to lose your sense of focus and believe it is the real deal, or pay close attention to the fact that it may be some lights strung to a weather balloon by some merry pranksters?

Many may find the argument in the skeptic article condescending. The argument that we can’t trust our own eyes implies that we are all crazy or that what we see on an everyday basis can’t be discerned properly. However, things are compounded when it comes to UFOs. They are almost universally seen at night when visibility is low. Secondly, there are things in the air, such as meteors, comets, planes, helicopters, and flares, not to mention more exotic things such as stealth bombers and weather balloons, which may appear for a moment to be like a UFO.

The article makes the argument that something like a UFO is too good to be true. It plays too deeply into what we want to be true. People who saw a purposeful hoax when told it was a haox refused to believe it and instead made up pseudoscientific explanations.

However, as I stated in my article Physics and New Age pseudoscience- so what if time is relative?, there are legitimate philosophical takeaways from the new developments in physics that are then used by quacks and New Age devotees to justify their ideologies (and sell books). Are there, despite all the New Age hype surrounding UFOs and aliens, despite all the hoaxes and abduction memories caused by hallucinations, any evidence for extraterrestrial visitation?

My hypothesis is that if we can, as the article suggests, eliminate certain lines of “evidence” for UFOs as being inherently suspect, then we can create a typology of lines of evidence that hierarchizes which types are greater than others.

Here is my hypothesis for a ranking of this kind:

  1. Undeniable visitation: This would be as if aliens landed on the White House lawn and made first contact. This kind would not need to be substantiated because presumably there is “nothing to hide”
  2. Mass sighting involving mass media: This would be as if a flying saucer was hovering clearly over Los Angeles and stayed there during the day, inviting world wide press coverage. Presumably, there would be “nothing left to hide” here as well

Because these two have never happened, the only way UFO believers can justify the idea that sightings are real is that UFOs visit us “in secret”. They do not want to be found.

Why is this suspect on face value? Because if they are truly “in secret”, and have the technology to fly millions of light years to Earth, then presumably they would have the technology to never be seen by us. However, let’s continue with the typology.

3. Mass sightings involving multiple videos and pictures: These actually exist, although what is seen is always unproven and could always be some kind of military craft. The famous Phoenix lights appear to be lights on a giant craft, but could be some kind of strangely aligned flares. These are especially interesting before the advent of digital editing software.

4. Video evidence from a singular person: This kind of evidence is becoming increasingly suspect in and of itself. If it cannot be substantiated by independent people (and things can be still be staged by hoaxers), then odds are it is an elaborate (or increasingly, with digital technology, simple) hoax.

The simple logic goes like this. What is easier to believe, a single vast government conspiracy surrounding extraterrestrials (implying the outlandish existence of these beings), or a bunch of mini-hoaxes perpetrated by self-motivating individuals? More than likely, people get creative in their spare time with digital software these days.

Nevertheless, I have to confess that I do not have a definitive answer about whether I “believe” in UFOs or not. Much of it is of course fun speculation and hype, much like ghosthunting and other paranormal hobbies. Sometimes, it is not easy to tell between those who hunt for ghosts as a hobby and true believers, who are often New Age spiritualists. However, the jury is still out for me. I find that the skeptic article above makes a bad argument for the nonexistence of a “UFO cover-up” purely in terms of their rationale (I still don’t believe in one). Their argument goes that Edward Snowden released a huge amount of CIA files, but none of them pertained to UFOs. However, that was not his line of work, and hypothetically, if they wanted to cover it up, it would “Super Top Secret”, not for lowly workers like Snowden to hack and find. This just goes to show you that even the reasoning of hardened skeptics are not infallible. However, I find their argument about the fallibility of our perception especially interesting from a philosophical perspective. Perhaps those who long for something in the sky just yearn for something more fulfilling spiritually. As Carl Jung stated many years ago, perhaps UFOs are our collective projection of a wish for psychic wholeness. Jung’s theory to date is the most insightful on how modern spirituality intersects with the phenomenon of science fiction and UFOs.

That all being said, you still have to wonder…are they out there?

 

The “mystery” of the infinite

As I have developed in other blog posts, the infinite is essentially boring so humanity invents ways to make it not boring. The debate of the universe being infinite vs. finite is interesting, but its probably infinite according to current cosmology. The nature in which its infinite is somewhat interesting, but to me, whether the universe is one universe in a nest of bubble universes or a infinite flat plane of universe is somewhat inconsequential. One has to be empirically correct, but philosophically it is essentially the same, but only at first glance.

The “bubble universe” or multiverse theory has one strength, as far as I can gleam- it introduces the cosmogony into the cosmology. In other words, it posits a way in which universes can be created and destroyed. Realizing that the known universe has a beginning, we can only speculate that it has an ending and is impermanent. The “bubble universe” theory has the advantage of postulating a dynamic system. The only downside I can think of is that it is almost too aesthetically pleasing and may amount to some form of anthropomorphism- in other words, its a pretty vision of what we would want Reality to look like. Can we see the beauty in an infinite expanse of nothingness or vacuum lying outside the observable universe? Its possible, but I personally would rather Reality to go on without me, for things to keep emerging and dying in an endless cycle.

The Bubble universe becomes even more probable if one consider that the Big Bang becomes not an “unexplainable event”, as Stephen Hawking was liable to believe at one point, but a causal event. Would I go so far as to “endorse” the Bubble universe/multiverse theory? I would say that it is the most attractive one currently available because it gives the universe a reason for being which is simply a matter of physics.

Let us imagine, however, a day millions of years in the future of humanity. We have discovered and proven the theory of the Bubble multiverse by seeing past the observable universe. Then we realize: what is one level above that multiverse? Is this series of bubbles in another bubble? 

You see the problem. An infinite nested series of bubbles. We are back at the same problem of infinity. The multiverse theory doesn’t solve the problem of the bubbles unless somehow that series of bubbles were finite or maybe countably infinite. What is more probable however is that this “bubbles within bubbles”, what classic Buddhist philosophy calls interpenetration and what can somewhat be mathematically described as having fractal geometry, is the nature of Reality. Reality simply goes on forever, but in a way in which patterns repeat over and over.

In my mind, we have yet to truly grasp the magnitude of infinity. By its very nature, what we are seeing as the entire observable universe is not only a tiny fraction of reality, it is an infinitesimal portion of it. No matter how big of a chunk you grab, whether it be half the universe, 6 universes, 100 billion universes, 100 billion multiverses…you get the picture.

That is why the ultimate explanation or causal picture of Reality as it is is by no means explained by the Big Bang. Am I positing a deity? No, there is no need to evoke omniscient beings and consciousnesses. Reality is as such, and its suchness is will always be tautological. It exists because it existed in the past…this created this, that created that. Try to “zoom out” and ask “well what created the whole thing?” and an answer will ultimately never be achieved. Or, by contrast, you could simply say “nothing created the whole thing, there never was nothing”. This latter answer leaves humans generally feeling like they are missing something, it feels emptywhich is why I believe its the right answer. Saying, “it just is” goes against the very metaphor of discovery which drives Western civilization and scientific knowledge. It implies that the only reason for new discoveries is utilitarian, and there is no grander teleological narrative, which is probably the case!

What is there left to discover? Everything and nothing, depending on your point of view. The multiverse leaves open some intriguing philosophical or existential possibilities. But by and large, we must recognize and confront the fact that the universe is the way it is, and our knowledge of it will not significantly change it in any way. In other words, we will be born, we will die, and the universe will continue to go. Thinking at these grand levels of cosmological scale is fun, but after awhile, you are forced epistemologically back down to earth.

 

The frightening, unacceptable nature of the infinite

https://www.universetoday.com/83167/universe-could-be-250-times-bigger-than-what-is-observable/

The article linked to above covers the most plausible science of what lies beyond the observable universe. The theory is that if the theory of the inflationary universe is correct (and all evidence points to the fact that it is correct) than the universe is at least 250 times larger than what is currently observable. To begin with, the size of the observable universe is around 90 billion light years wide. That means it would take light, which moves almost exactly 300,000 km/s (kilometers, not meters) 90 billion years to traverse the diameter of the universe. To quote the article:

“Since special relativity states that nothing can move faster than a photon, many people misinterpret this to mean that the observable Universe must be 13.75 billion light years across. In fact, it is much larger. Not only has space been expanding since the big bang, but the rate of expansion has been steadily increasing due to the influence of dark energy. Since special relativity doesn’t factor in the expansion of space itself, cosmologists estimate that the oldest photons have travelled a distance of 45 billion light years since the big bang. That means that our observable Universe is on the order of 90 billion light years wide.”

Therefore, the universe is expands even faster than the speed of light, and because of that certain parts of the universe are forever beyond our light cone. Because of this, they are even beyond the realm of causal interaction- everything beyond the 90 billion light year diameter of the universe cannot interact with the observable universe except perhaps through gravity.

Let’s expand further: if the theory of the inflationary universe correct, then the universe is at least 250x larger than what is currently observable (somewhere on the order of 100 sextillion light years across). But why, then, can the universe not be infinitely large?

It seems we are faced with a contradiction. It seems impossible to empirically prove that the universe goes on forever because of physical constraints and the sheer logical fact that it would not be possible to observe an infinite distance in the first place because conceivably, one could always say “perhaps the end is still beyond that”. If it can be a priori proven from mathematical principles seems dubious at best- the debate rages on between those who say the universe is flat or curved. However, most current data favors a flat and therefore spatially infinite universe.

This idea of measuring the spatial curvature of the universe however does not take into account the fact that at some point beyond the observable horizon of the universe the curvature suddenly increases or is so close to 0 but not being 0 that it is impossible to tell. Thus the problem of infinitesimals meets the infinite.

However, the article expresses a kind of reticence to pronounce that the universe is probably infinite. It is simply “too hard to accept”- they would rather go with the title “universe could be 250 times bigger than what we can see.” For some reason, it is more shocking to say that the universe is 250 times rather than infinitely larger than expected. Somehow, infinity gets reduced to 0. How is this possible? Because infinity, as an endless repetition, is essentially boring. I’ve written about this before, but strictly speaking, humans cannot truly comprehend the infinite, and so they collapse into concepts that are seemingly opposite to it, such as nothingness. Something that is infinitely larger than something is now beyond human comparison, and therefore cannot be gawked at. What is funny is that this is even done by cosmologists.

Take this Quora answer by a mathematics professor, repeating the standard line that the number of electrons in the universe is 10^80 and therefore it is countable and finite:

https://www.quora.com/Is-the-universe-countable

If all the evidence points to an infinite universe, even though it is essentially not possible to prove otherwise, it will never be proclaimed as a fact. Why? There is still more to explore! Infinity violates the boundaries of science- it introduces the metaphysical into the mathematical. If the universe is infinite, what type of infinity is it? Countably infinite? Uncountably infinite?

These are questions that will probably never be answered, but my money is on uncountably infinite. Why? Because the “boundary” of what consider the universe isn’t actually a boundary at all. I’ve pointed out the narrow-mindedness of physicists before when it comes to theories of the universe and the most abstruse theories out there (string theory, holographic theory). There are only boundaries it seems when it comes to the human imagination (of some humans). Even I don’t believe these are insurmountable barriers to human knowledge. I do not believe, as Leonard Susskind claims, it is simply impossible to understand things like quantum physics directly or intuitively. The human brain is a finite organ in space and time, but it has the astounding ability to conceptually grasp things even beyond what is considered “normal life”.

The fundamental Buddhist insight- that what we see is not how reality truly is- is absolutely fundamentally correct. Everything we know about reality points to this, because there are simply things we cannot see- atoms, worlds far beyond our own. The structure of things, their nature, is not possible to grasp with the five senses alone- Plato and the great thinkers of the past knew that very well just from their experience- they knew there was something more to what we see. However, the Platonic vision of reality is also fundamentally limited. Concepts like nirvana or even “the universe” are also only ultimately constructs. Reality as it is is beyond at least average conceptual understanding. Where the real conceptual leap must occur is into the realm of what Buddhist philosophy calls “non-conceptual thought”, which to the rationalist mind is simply an error. Such a thing is not possible. However, if we were to gain some sort of insight into the nature of things like “uncountably infinite” we would in fact have to go beyond our normal concepts for things which operate in terms of metaphors which only apply to the here and now.

To conclude, when thinking of the idea of the uncountable, the mind encounters accepting a limit. It tries to convert the idea of uncountable to something more mundane, like “countable if given an infinite amount of time”. But this is not a correct definition of uncountable. Therefore, if we were to truly accept something of the order of “the universe is uncountably infinite” we would have to accept things like “a theory of everything is not possible”. And yet, science continues to grasp for this theory. And the question is obviously- why? Because the search for truth seems to be something inherent to humanity. Perhaps this particular strain of searching is historically contingent, but modern physics and science now desperately wants this TOE.

My theory is that the TOE stands ultimately for the purpose of science itself, its floating signifier, a signifier which is beyond the bounds of all the other signifiers. The TOE, if thought to be obtained, would not be in fact the TOE. Instead, there would be an illusory nesting egg effect- “TOEs” inside of TOEs. Ultimately, paradoxes will always plague science, as long as it continues to exist.

 

The commodification of emotion and its paradoxical authenticity: An anime review

Music is the most dangerous thing on the planet. As Zizek has recognized, music can be a powerful ideological tool to mobilize armies, to inspire patriotism, but also to give hope to those who need it. It often helps people through horrible periods in their life.

This is the ending title song for the anime Attack on Titan, an “apocalyptic” show with genuine pathos and exciting plot and story development, one of the most popular anime television shows in the world that somewhat transcends the genre and approaches the level of, say, a Hiyao Miyazaki movie. And yet, it is vaguely reminiscent of corny monster movies. But there is something genuinely uncanny and unnerving about seeing building-sized cannibalistic humanoids devour the helpless population of a rural society armed only with cannons and primitive c. 18th century devices. Set it what looks like rural Bavaria or Germany, the show makes one wonder “what would I do in a situation where I fight or die? Would it take the easy path or fight for my life? Would I be strong enough?” There are some real dark turns in this show, its definitely for children.

http://www.wisecrack.co/shows/wisecrackedition/philosophy-of-attack-on-titan/

The link above explains how Attack on Titan may explore, directly or indirectly, philosophical themes from controversial Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt, leading some to claim the show as veiled endorsement of Japanese nationalism. I believe this is a misinterpretation. What the authors of the show seeks to address are partly themes of totalitarianism and how in dire situations it may be necessary, or how a created common enemy can unite a people. I also believe the show is simply about war and death.

A world war, a war of truly total proportions, is an existential threat that requires one to choose sides, and ultimately fight for one’s life and those of others. It is through an analysis of how power intersects with ordinary people’s decisions where we realize that people who do things that are evil felt as if they had no choice, even if they had one.

This is where commodification and authenticity come into play. The primary reference here, aside from Adorno and Heidegger, is oddly The Banality of Evil. Capitalism, in all its insidious, spreads its tentacles over the globe and creates a consumer culture that is not only totalizing- it is addicting. Video game addiction. Netflix binging. Don’t tell me if you are a leftist you haven’t done it.

And why bother moralizing? It’s fun! Pieces of art that are genuinely moving, even if they are engineered by a group of smart producers and marketers, are still moving. And that’s the problem. The evils of the market are kept in place ideologically by things that make us feel good. Big Macs. Coca-Cola. Chips.

In moderation, these are things that make us feel good. And they remain problematic because, in my view, these things eventually can consume us. Consumption-based society creates a society of couch potatoes, endless consumption. It is essentially the problematic of Infinite Jest.

When we long for a simpler time, in movies, in music, we forget that elements of mass culture and consumer society improves living standards around the world. But a total takeover is ultimately catastrophic to the psychic well-being of humanity.

We need to find a balance. A Middle Way. In our own habits and collectively.

If you are a Marxist: its OK if Hollywood made you cry. It’s OK if you like Coca-Cola. But ultimately, we should embark on something that looks less like the Jetsons and looks more like…well, the way things already are (to a certain extent).

High speed rail isn’t the answer to all of our problems. But modern convenience is a luxury that many would kill for.

It’s scary to think about, but in 50 years we will look back nostalgically on the temperature. Conservation is fundamentally…conservative. We have a right to feel a sense of entitlement of preserving that forest by your house, even the air we breathe.

The heroic struggle that is before us is principally an transformative one: it is a battle against ourselves. Can we create a new way of life that saves us and the planet? Let us continue to be inspired by the art and fantasy of the age. We can continue to daydream about being our favorite heroes: perhaps that is how we will get through the coming years, and have the courage to make the tough decisions.

What does it mean to deterritorialize?

“For essential reasons: the unity of all that allows itself to be attempted today through the most diverse concepts of science and of writing, is, in principle, more or less covertly yet always, determined by an historicometaphysical epoch of which we merely glimpse the closure. I do not say the end. The idea of science and the idea of writing—therefore also of the science of writing—is meaningful for us only in terms of an origin and within a world to which a certain concept of the sign (later I shall call it the concept of sign) and a certain concept of the relationships between speech and writing, have already been assigned.”  –Derrida, Of Grammatology

It was Deleuze and Derrida who almost simultaneously recognized that writing or code inheres in the fabric of more than modern civilization- the code of a computer, genetic code, military secret code, the code of the law, etc. etc. Is this only because linguistic signs and metaphors permeate discourse itself- language not being able to escape language- or is this ontologically actually the case? One would probably go with the former at first in non-anthropomorphic cases, but what if information itself somehow is ontologically primary in reality? Quantum information theory says as much.

By referring to genetic material as code, what do we mean? We mean there is a sequence, a series of particular entities that in one combination produce one biological or chemical product, and in another produce another. The key aspects here of code are combinations, sequences, and corresponding production. Is the key aspect of this the sequence itself, the combination? No, it is reproduction, or corresponding production. Code reproduces itself. A code is stable, as a key or cipher it remains constant so that variable productions can occur. If we continue to use DNA as a model, we should recognize here the differences between transcription, translation, and replication. Code here reproduces itself but also produces new entities by means of mirror replication or half replication. Correspondingly, a signifier refers to other signifiers in the chain of meaning, referring to the original code in a semi-autonomous but never completely redundant way. Redundancy itself eliminates or reduces the possibility for errors, for mutations in intended meaning.

As a professional copy editor, I am told by my company to eliminate redundancy, but I have found that a certain amount of redundancy fills a paper out. There is a distinct difference between “to verb” and “in order to verb”, despite it being categorized as an “inflated phrase”. Of course there can be too much redundancy- this kind of redundancy would probably be eliminated quickly by helpful “editing proteins” in DNA. But the problem is that we are always operating on several codes at once- one’s professional code, one’s ethical code, one’s personal code, one’s biological code (sometimes my code tells me to sleep instead of writing long blog posts in the middle of the night). While we are slaves to our code, our pro-gram (credit to Derrida), we are also in some sense the programmers. Perhaps what it means to be human is that we are given a certain program, namely ourselves, and it is our task to hack it as much as humanly possible without “shorting the circuit”. Perhaps this is what Foucault drove at with the “limit experience”. Perhaps this is what Deleuze truly meant by deterritorialization, with all the warnings that come attached. Deleuze always formulated deterritorialization as a decoding explicitly. One only gets out of a territory by means of a decoding of a certain flow of X.

Oh boy, have we entered into the terrain of cliches? One hears the right-wing all the time say we need to “deprogram” ourselves from liberal hogwash. Cue the Matrix metaphors about taking the red pill! Here’s the problem with a cliche- it did mean something at one point. Yes, getting out of your territory is getting out of your comfort zone. So what? Its still good advice. But think about why its your comfort zone. Perhaps you have comfort zones you haven’t discovered yet- that’s a nice thought. For instance, I have recently found a passion for chess that I never thought I would have. I at one point never thought I would be into French postmodernism, but here I am.

And so, we come full circle to the quote at the beginning of the essay. What is Derrida saying is occurring? A deterritorialization of the whole field of language. Or, more precisely, the beginning of the end of a certain era having something to do with language. What he was referring to is also called the “Death of Speech”.

Is this Death of Speech a bad thing? Death can also be a rebirth, but here we should avoid the temptation to avoid historical and dialectical cliches. No- time really is linear. A death of speech cannot be reversed. But what is Derrida even referring to? A fundamental change in the nature of human communication. This fundamental change corresponds with changes in how we perceive communication itself, and thus, in social being itself.

Welcome to the Digital Age- stay tuned for more developments!

There’s no celebration of Posthumanism here, only a diagnosis of our present predicament. A historicometaphysical epoch is determinant, after all. Try as you might, one thing is for certain- there is no escaping the present.

Is there anything new I can offer to essentially the hodgepodge of already formulated ideas? Only the drawing of relationship, only creating the map at the edges of which we find the signifier for something more, a new direction. We have our web of concepts: code, Death of Speech, deterritorialization, and the modern importance of the digital or cybernetic. This has all been explored ad nauseam by Deleuze in Societies of Control, by Derrida, but lets dive head in, shall we?

There are two aspects to consider more closely- the prediction of the development of the current historicometaphysical epoch and outlining any concepts that we appear to have missed. Deleuze has indicated that deterritorialization by way of formation of new subjectivities through creative experimentation can counteract the effect of digital societies of control. In other words, in an era filled with new cybernetic mechanisms bent on shaping one’s self to be more penetrable to capitalist exploitation and marketing, through stimuli and response control in a Pavlovian sense, Desire itself is the target of an individual’s subjectivity.

Therefore, my recommendations for future areas of “research” or personal subjectivation: if the problem for forming a truly individual subjectivity is outside stimuli that creates and forms Desire, there are two possible avenues: the “ascetic” route of personal denial and the “tantric” route of shaping and playing with one’s desires.

If we truly want to reshape the world, we don’t only need to “look in the mirror”. We need to reevaluate our (shared) individual and collective desires.

So we have come to a useful conceptual distinction: individual and collective Desire. Nothing that hasn’t been said before, but a useful one. But perhaps more originally, I have offered a distinction between an “ascetic” and “tantric” route to subjectivation, and suggested a dichotomy. I am always intrigued by the concept of “unplugging” in the modern world: going a month without TV, etc. It would be difficult for me, I admit. I think this is exactly what our world needs right now. But I also believe that there must be a libidinal substitute for any kind of ascetic denial. TV is great! So if you plan on getting rid of TV for a month- make sure you are going somewhere nice and won’t be bothered it, or are planning on reading some good books. In a society that encourages binge watching, I purposefully try to watch an episode of my favorite shows per day.

Or, you could “go to the end”- the tantric route- use Desire to eliminate desire. Binge watch until you can go without TV for a year. Watch everything you want to watch, and then get sick of it. This route is NOT for the faint of heart!

And if you are interested in collective liberation, and think me talking about binge watching won’t effect anything, that I’m “feeding into the neoliberal paradigm”, think twice: I’m one step ahead of you! In an era of atomized individuals, we have to work on ourselves first. In other words: we have to deatomize. How? Before coming together in a big chemical reaction that will shake the foundations of the earth, we have to be chemically prepared. I’m saying- if you want a revolution, a political one, it needs to start by recognizing that our current industrial way of life is in the long term completely unsustainable. And no, Zizek, it won’t all be fixed by green energy and luxury space communism.

This kind of experimentation with alternative lifestyles, particularly associated with the green movement, is quickly co-opted by the capitalist hegemony. As Zizek points out, the true alternative is a liberatory framework for society, but this isn’t only in terms of changing the nature of production. Taking down consumer society starts with taking down the DESIRE FOR CONSUMER SOCIETY.

Unfortunately, we have to recognize that despite the enormous conveniences of modern capitalist society for the First World, it has never been that way for the Third World. And we can’t avoid what’s coming.

Yes, we do have to deprogram ourselves, and fast. The ocean is rising

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.