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.

 

Advertisements

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

Why does Jordan Peterson exist- SJWs or crowdfunding?

Social Justice Warriors. SJWs. Is the term valid? As a progressive, I have an instinctive gut reaction against the “anti-SJW industry” or people like Jordan Peterson who make their living making “podcasts” or other internet drivel ranting. I swear to Buddha, I’ll drop dead before I accept cash for my opinion over the internet.

But do social justice warriors exist? Is it a caricature? I think something is developing that is far more disturbing- the SJW industry. What the liberal left and right fail to comprehend is that everything can be commodified. There is an SJW industry, a network of “passionate social justice activists” who put their opinions online for money in the name of justice, and then there are anti-feminists who…end up doing the exact same thing.

My hypothesis is that what fuels the creation of people like Jordan Peterson is not just “the internet” or “social media”. The fact that Peterson is crowdfunded by Patreon is a significant development. What does it mean?

I believe it means that the model of news/infotainment that was perfected by the cable news industry, now that it has moved online, has transformed into an infotainment “a la carte” menu, where people pick their opinion and fund it directly. In turn, people are increasingly driven to make their opinion or felt subjectivity into their career; they are programmed to commodify themselves ceaselessly. Peterson is the example of a success-story. The endless self-commodification of our culture (one could argue I’m also a victim, I’m “advertising myself” in some fashion right now) has managed to permeate discourse to the degree where speech itself, in a Deleuzian fashion, has become rotten. Meaningful speech has ceased to exist. There is always just an underlying profit motive.

If that’s not depressing enough, if discourse itself hasn’t just become one big farce, if we aren’t just talking past each other in a giant Tower of Babel (credit to Landzek at Constructive Undoing blog), then consider this:

We can now commodify things that have never been commodified before: feelings, thoughts, experiences, emotions. All virtual, all simulated, everything empty, shallow, and meaningless.

On a sidenote: crowdfunding is a byproduct of consumer capitalism, specifically of what Marx called the production of new needs, or even more specifically, the need to “fulfill your dream”. Want to become a successful rapper? Cook? Need to pay off your credit card debt? Indiegogo baby!

When you were a kid and you wouldn’t eat your peas, your mom told you there were starving kids in Africa. Millennial moms will just say “oh my poor precious baby, you don’t have to eat anything, you are my little precious angel!”

Do I believe that millennials are all completely narcissistic and entitled? No. But I do think you feed into conservative propaganda when you refuse to take your inherent First World economic privilege into account. Unless you are homeless or terminal, don’t come crying to me, we all have problems.

What created Jordan Peterson?

  1. Identity politics and a refusal to look at class as a primary determinant of life
  2. The modern “gender studies” focus on “transformative identity” which reinforces narcissistic individualism in today’s activist culture
  3. A dynamic of increasing self-promotion in modern cybercapitalism

Perhaps Zizek is right that we need to become more alienated from each other first to fix these problems.

 

Boredom, transgression, and knowledge: The Borromean Knot

I never want to be a polemicist. Take what Milo Yiannopoulos does for a living: he makes money spouting his unproductive and vile political opinions to the masses- and what comes out of it? Perhaps the end game is getting more people to vote for Trump. Perhaps he thinks there is some sort of value for “society at large” (whatever that means), for civil society- “the value of free speech”.

To me, this is a symptom of a society with too much time on its hands. The alt-right is a product of internet culture- that much is known to the left-wing intelligentsia. But what is internet culture the product of? Boredom.

Surplus time: a commodity we seem to have too little and too much of at the same time. We rush to get to work, then waste our time when we are there. I’ve seen graphs of productivity rising over time for the average worker while wages have stagnated: I have to say I’m incredulous at those statistics. Average productivity has probably risen due to the effect of the rise of constant capital- in non-Marxist jargon, technological development. More mass production does not equate to higher worker productivity as an effect of the worker. Now, I’m willing to concede that worker productivity can also have risen due to other factors- namely, when I think of the service economy, I think of the drive to make minimum wage workers work as efficiently as possible, and there’s nothing they can do about it. But I’m not talking to the minimum wage worker. You know who I’m talking to.

Yes, you, the modern bourgeoisie- the middle classes. 

The middle class has the luxury of boredom, the dreadful curse of boredom. Coupled with a failed education system/intellectual culture, the disappearance of social sphere outside the cybersphere, and you have a recipe for a lot of “unproductive” nonsense.

As Zizek points out, modern consumer capitalist culture’s ideological underpinnings are no longer just “work hard and you will get what you need”, emphasizing personal responsibility: the motto of consumer culture is “Work Hard (not too hard), Play Hard”. In short- “Enjoy yourself”. I am certainly not immune to this inculcated attitude.

Here I believe Zizek, because of his Lacanian training, doesn’t use the right terminology. My disagreements with him often boil down to terminology- but I believe those differences are enlightening. This injunction “enjoy yourself” is not just the “ideological superstructure”- it is immanently the way society interacts with itself. In short, the mode of interaction of society is that phenomenon called culture, or behavior.

Everyone on the left knows counterculture has been co-opted. They can see it clear as day as far back as the “original” counterculture- even the hippies were already a brand, a style of clothing, a type of music you listen to.

The true “counterculture”, like Jesus, doesn’t go around announcing they are the counterculture to the world. The true iconoclasts, as Nietzsche realized, are in living in caves. And they don’t come back to write books either. Thus, the true counterculture doesn’t really exist.

“Ok, we’ve heard all this before, transgression exists in relation to the social norm in which it is supposed to be opposed, there is a secret libidinal link between them- what is the nature of the link?”

If you only think of this link in terms of psychoanalysis- the transgressor is the secret desire of the normative individual, and vice versa, you miss a lot of nuance (and I would argue, you miss reality). When Lacan says something to this effect, I believe he is not referring in a reductive way to an *actual* repressed desire, but a kind of *virtual* repressed desire. What does the transgressor represent to the normative person? What does he embody? What in him does he hate, and therefore forms the object of the fixation? Did Nixon really want to be a hippie and “let it all hang loose”, but he was afraid of what his close friends and family would say? Of course not.

But we can say that to the conservative middle classes, the hippie represents something unattainable- the state of ecstatic union, which is fundamentally denied to them by their Puritanical Christian theology.

Nowadays, the state of ecstatic union is commonplace- rave culture, your last one night stand at the bar.

And therefore, we must ask- what does the “bourgeois family” represent that is unattainable to the poly-amorous libertine? The unattainable stability and comfort which they constantly try to unconsciously undermine.

And so, does the truth lie somewhere in the middle? Hold your horses- the point is that these things are also unattainable for the hippie and the bourgeois stiff themselves- the family life they constantly try to rigidly enforce mechanically rather than organically, the party life which they use to try to achieve some sort of spiritual release.

And so we come to the hidden link between the hippie and the bourgeois- a fundamental religiosity, which I believe has something fundamental to do with being 1) a baby boomer (in the context of the 60s cultural divide) 2) being American.

We now have new manifestations of these phenomena- former hippies’ children rebelling in strange ways to their parents who were largely too detached, or simply fundamentalist families’ children being inevitably exposed to *anything* beyond the narrow confines in which they were raised. This creates a new kind of generational divide, taking the form of a more profound “rebellion” than usual in adolescence.

What is my ultimate point? If you go deep back into American culture- and I mean deep- you can see that none of this is new. Fights between atheists and theists that get so heated on the internet- despite the political implications, nothing that hasn’t been done before in the time of the Revolution. The most horrid realization I believe we should take away is- having a certain point of view is no guarantee of being a good person, or even a respectable personUnless you are person of considerable influence, ultimately it might not matter very much 

What do you do with that kind of knowledge? Your opinion matters with respect to the ultimate direction of mass movements, you are told- sure, ok.

So, you could wrap back around to the philosophy: “I should do what’s ultimately best for me (and my family)”. OK, hold your horses- that’s where we started, and we already tried to identify why that’s problematic beyond simple moralizing.

Here’s something to consider- isn’t that position- egoism- just more boring?

“But Stephen, I thought you said we shouldn’t make our decisions based off boredom”.

All thought and knowledge is inextricably linked with pleasure. Thank Foucault for that one.

When we get closer and closer to seeing how combating something called conformity requires producing a whole new form of subjectivity, something that could be called a life process, when we have to grapple with modern boredom, and not try to become un-bored, but *accept it*, then perhaps we can achieve a boring goal, a noble goal-

Not being a shitty person.

And perhaps the most unnerving thing we have to realize is- perhaps unless you work at it, you are a default shitty person (because of social and historical forces beyond your control). Or rather- this may be a useful fiction to believe.

I’d rather be a moralizer than a polemicist