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Archive for August, 2012




One of the cultural inventions of the so called modern era is the experience of isolation. Descartes’ famous cogito, ergo sum is a formula for expressing the isolation of the individual and a cry into the darkness for comfort, and solidarity with an unknown other. But in this creation we realize a thus far insoluble problem: how can a highly gregarious creature survive a lifetime of solitary incarceration? What Kierkegaard understood was that the task of a single life was the task of reconciliation with our grief, a riddle now forgotten by modern humans in our world of technology and systems. We seem to believe that our systematizing of the world redeems it automatically, that redemption is simply a by product of manipulation. But, when the whole world becomes nothing but standing reserve for the urge driven impulses of an eternally lonely creature, what ceremony of words can truly mend the havoc?

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I tempt not what with fate should not be tempted,
thus upon a morning soft and rosy painted
I ran round the city gate with your love
and there met one who seemed a traveler with a face
distracted by lands of many cares, dust of late
driven horrors in itineraries better never
seen, never wholly contemplated.
I thought what can be this mystery clear
what does it wish, where will it wander
in times abroad that we have yet to bear and
in what carpeted dream of nights, oil
lit shores of far off lands—what wishes, what wants,
what caprice, what loves with love presented
shall it hold dear?



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As the years of suffering add up and whisk on by, I have learned to welcome sadness as a part of me, something that in fact the best part of me creates through its sacred and noble effort. For if we didn’t desire anything in our heart of hearts, would anything affect us in any way? Instead of pushing away grief, can we yet learn to speak to it in a different voice? The voice that addresses all living creatures as members of one extended family? I will call that tree my brother and that flower my sister, the elephants and the crows my mothers and fathers, the tree sloth, the crab and the koala–my cousins and my grandchildren. For they all suffer just like me. They are all sad, happy, angry, alarmed, despondent and hopeful every day of their lives. The emotion that cannot be part of me is no emotion that could ever be borne by the heart of any living creature. So welcome sadness and come hither, you are part of me and belong with me and henceforth I will not refuse to speak to you in any far flung corner of the living universe.


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Is Kant’s categorical imperative really no more than a recitation in praise of solidarity? Or, to express it poetically, a divine eulogy and prelude–to a philosophy of the future–a love song for some land beyond all good and evil?



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If we re-trace Heidegger’s footsteps for a moment and ask ourselves what is the nature of human-being (Dasein) in the west since the beginning of recorded time, one possible metaphor involves the secularization of culture. Secularization in the west appears to involve the journey from the many to the one, both in the human and the divine spheres. Consider our relation to the divine: the classical world did not exactly have the concept of “religion” in the same way that we do. Instead, they spoke of piety. And the divine was created in the image of human society – a pantheon of characters each with their own faults and foibles, none of them even remotely approaching the celestial perfection of a singular Abrahamic deity. Likewise in human affairs, as concern shifted from this singular god to the earthly affairs of humanity, we became increasingly aware of our own singularity and isolation. Descartes’ famous mantra, “I think, therefore I am,” is an expression of this trend. Was he not quite prescient in expressing what Heidegger later called our “facticity” and Sartre termed “abandonment?” Nietzsche declared that god was dead both as a descriptive and a prescriptive metaphor: letting us know that we had moved irreconcilably beyond the point of being able to seek solace in the divine singularity, now trapped in our weak human sphere and reliant on nothing but our own devices. The sweat on Descartes’ brow as he vainly tried to re-discover a lone God through the singularity of the human soul –that being all he could bring himself to know with any clear and unshakable certainty—no longer serves a creature that has unlocked the atom, looked beyond the stars, revalued all valuation and, so proud of its modern sophistication, daily spurns to partake in an old love of magic nights, and day break.


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The desire to understand ourselves as thinking creatures has enchanted and plagued humanity at least since the dawn of writing. As expressed by Richard Rorty, it manifests as the classically liberal question of how to balance the individual’s need for self-creation (private irony) against our needs for solidarity as a social species (public hope). One way to resdescribe and apparently resolve this tension is to create some sort of story concerning the “state of nature” which inevitably informs and shapes humanity’s experiences. Whether one subscribes to a notion of a will to power (Hobbes, Nietzsche), will to authority (Descartes, Kant, Sartre, Bloom), will to freedom (Hegel), or will to pleasure (Freud), the basic paradigm is the same: the devolution of the private-public tension upon the primacy of our “truer” natures. Franz de Waal calls this the “thin veneer theory” of human existence: the notion that civilized behaviors represent but a thin layer over coating our more primitive, driven and primal nature. The classical liberal tension is thus characterized as something merely epiphenomenal: an illusion to be dispelled when we re-encounter our true natures sublimated into their socially acceptable forms, concealed and, as it were, sicklied o’er by the pale cast of nurture. Though the history of the west has indeed been the tale of our struggles with our aggressive habits, there is in fact another story to be told about these struggles. The alternative thread, which one could perhaps nickname the existentialist thread, traces itself from Plato and the Buddha, through Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Skinner, Hesse, Kundera, Dewey, Rorty and de Waal to modern iconoclasts like Carol Gilligan, Beverly Tatum, Martin Luther King, Eduardo Duran and the erstwhile “Seattle Crew” (Linehan, Tsai, Kohlenberg, Jacobson, Martell, et. Al). From the existentialist perspective the duality of self and other is like the duality of life and non-life: a forever perplexing knot that need not be undone. It is this group who I believe have revived the sense of humanity in context, a model which was present at the beginning, but which was drowned out by centuries of reification and essence searching in a Europe plagued by the sense that life is elsewhere. Sitting with contrariety, living in perplexity, admiring the tensions of irony and hope is all that becoming need be and, finally, simply, the ladder that we throw away from under us.

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