In Praise of Iron Cages

Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved. – Max Weber

You’re in an iron cage, stuck – both as commodity and consumer, a student-customer, a human “resource” locked in a Highlander-ish, “there can be only one,” economic “survival of the fittest,” death spiral leading to a post-industrial, Geidi Prime-like oil spill planet where the remnants of humanity seek dry land. Or, what the DoD refers to as “best case.”

Weber puts it this way: “In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.” True enough: you live in a culture where “self-interest,” despite lip-service to the contrary, is the summum bonum. Do you remember the Foundations assignment, should you lie to the DC to cover up your friend’s cheating? The correct answer was: “Do whatever gets you what you want. Just don’t get caught.” That seems to be the Zeitgeist. But, perhaps, you share my view that the so-called correct answer is a scandal. What then?

1. Aufheben Your Cage: The system is broken and cannot be fixed. Hegel would say this is not something unique to our hyper-capitalistic culture, but true of all partial attempts to categorize ultimate reality. “It is in this dialectic and in the comprehension of the unity of opposites, or of the positive in the negative, that speculative knowledge consists.” That is, there are inherent contradictions in our ontology (or the way we conceptualize reality); such contradictions or defects can be resolved only by formulating a new system that retains the truths of the previous one while going beyond it. (This is bascially what Hegel means by “aufheben.) Therefore, we need to transcend and preserve the present system in order to escape Weber’s cage.

Yeah. Yeah. Let’s face it: neither you nor I are going to aufheben anything. After all, who really accepts Hegelian idealism? Not to mention that I have a long Netflix queue. Those videos aren’t going to watch themselves. And, lest you forget, you are paying top dollar for an education designed to secure a life of privilege. You’re here to run the system, not overthrow it. Dummkopf!

2. Decorate Your Cage: Instead of fighting the system, play the game. Embrace your inner consumer. Regard yourself as an object, a thing, a commodity. Liberally use objectifying language to reconcile yourself to your fate. Going forward, drop in conversation, in classes, or at the GSU such terms as “proactive,” “best practices,” or “synergy.” Talking this way will “incentivize” your “buy-in,” as it properly “messages” a “sustainable business model” so that you can “employ” your “human resources” for the “maximization” of your “profit.”

Get good enough at using this “language of the cage” and you will achieve capitalistic Nirvana, but only if you don’t interrogate such words for their underlying meaning. Max Horkheimer hints at this: “As soon as a thought or word becomes a tool, one can dispense with actually ‘thinking’ it….Such mechanization is indeed essential to expansion of industry; but if it becomes characteristic of minds, if reason itself is instrumentalized, it takes on a kind of materiality and blindness” [emphasis mine]. But, isn’t this just the typical humorless rantings and paranoia of a balding neo-Marxist? Yup.

So, get yourself an iPhone to increase your productivity and your chances of a car wreck. Sure, life’s an Iron Cage, but not after you decorate it! Get some expensive curtains that you can flaunt in front of your fellow prisoners. “Exploitation” and “consumption” are the values du jour, and having lots of stuff displays your worth and value to others. As Marx said: “[The bourgeoisie] has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.” To paraphrase my old professor, “I’m better than you because I have more than you.” Letting the parasitic poor starve until they learn to find a better than minimum wage job is actually compassionate. How else will they become free? And if it gets too disturbing, draw your curtain and stream a movie. But, never forget, my padawan hyper-capitalists, “The world needs ditch-diggers too.” Better them than you. Dummkopf!

3. Sit in Your Cage: Horrified? Perhaps you should instead seek ways of coping with life in the Iron Cage. What if you simply let the cage be, let the system be, and instead work to develop the four limitless qualities of loving-kindness, joy, compassion, and equanimity? How? Through meditation, of course. You should sit. And sit. And sit some more. You should sit with monks from Thailand. Twice. You should sit at the doctor’s office. You should sit before school starts. You should sit during class. You should sit after school’s over. You should sit in the car, on the subway, on cushions, on couches, on Saturdays. Along the way, you might even pick up a little Buddhist wisdom. “When the question is common / The answer is also common. / When the question is sand in a bowl of boiled rice / The answer is a stick in the soft mud.” I’m sure we’ve all said this many times ourselves. Then, there’s the great contemplative, Thich Naht Hahn, affectionately known as Thay (teacher): “To fully experience this life as a human being, we all need to connect with our desire to realize something larger than our individual selves.” Like what, Thay, a group rate? No, seriously, how much will this cost me?

Fine. I get it, Davis. Buddhism is counter-cultural. It rejects greed, sees virtue as necessary for living well, and teaches compassion for all living beings. What hippie crap! But, it gets worse, padawan. You might lose interest in television or developing your golf game or in ideological Facebook fights. You might actually enjoy being alone with yourself, and I mean really alone – unplugged and still. But, don’t worry. Who has time to sit every day and be unproductive? Sitting is no way to get a Lamborghini or a better hair piece. And then, what if you should start succeeding at cultivating compassion? Wouldn’t that make it harder to use others as resources? And then what? A rejection of conspicuous consumption all together? That’s crazy talk! And anyway, we’ve already abandoned the idea of abandoning the system. Dummkopf!

4. Cage Bliss: Famed scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell advised us to follow our bliss. I guess he means doing what you enjoy or some equally quixotic notion. In today’s world, we call these hobbies, and they exist to make us appear “well-rounded” and to provide relief from the rigors of cage life. You could even say that hobbies individuate you. But do any of us need any more time scheduled? I value my unscheduled time. I call this sleep. Perhaps you’re clever enough to squeeze in your bliss between homework, sports, the arts, community service, family, friends, dating, and clubs. Maybe you can even market your bliss; maybe in your “personal” college essay.

But, Davis, what if my bliss has no exchange value, or what we call…value? Look, padawan, I love playing with Dirty Solace and the Swamp Cats. I want to busk with them at the corner of Royal and St. Peters in NOLA. We’ll never manage to squeeze that in, though. Still, I love those “perfect moments” when we are in sync, playing Dixieland. I love that the student-teacher barrier disappears, and we are all equals in the music we make together. We even relax, they let their hair down, and we relate to each other apart from self-interest. We joke; we experiment; we create. Yet, let’s be frank, at least in my case: I’ll never be a great musician, nor will I make any money at it. And it takes time away from teaching. So, it must not really be in my self-interest. And your hobby probably isn’t in yours either. Dummkopf!

I could go on, but you get the point. All playfulness aside, to escape the cage, we need to change our attitudes about what and, more importantly, who really matters. But, this will require considerable creativity, sacrifice, and commitment. And you might have to give up that Lamborghini. What if this is your actual self-interest? Sorry, padawan, you’ll have to decide that for yourself.

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Snow Karma

“Get me the fuck to New Orleans!”

I lived through the Blizzard of 78. I think we got a week off from school, and I remember building snow tunnels and forts with my father and friends for an enormous snowball fight. I remember walking with my dad through streets deserted of cars, just hardy New Englanders trudging through the snow.

The Boston Blizzard of 2015

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Whine. Whine. Whine.

This is likely a result of climate change(1). If so, then we’re ALL responsible for this shit. Stop whining, and do something. Otherwise, shut the fuck up. I’m sick of this culture’s learned helpfulness, its materialism, and its entitled narcissism. Over 300 million individual capitalistic, conformist automatons unreflectively pursuing fame, money, power, sex, intoxicants. I’m sick to death of so many people thinking only of themselves and what pleasant toys that can acquire to fill the emptiness of the ill-chosen lives.

Want to live better? Stop driving; stop consuming; stop buying into a system that is quite literally leading us all to catastrophe. Stop voting for climate deniers and politicians who care only about their own pockets, rather than our collective future. Stop supporting fascistic regimes that torture, murder, rape, and exploit people. Yeah, it’s hard, but not nearly as hard as it will be when we are forced to change or die.

Traffic-Jam-Annoying

This winter is what is called KARMA. And Karma can be such a bitch.

Yeah, yeah, tu quoque.

I’m working on it!

(1) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150126-blizzard-weather-climate-northeast-science/.
Or: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/01/26/3615330/blizzards-climate-scientists/

The Fun Button

And so my ethereal, blogospherical life in the Nothing begins.

WordPress offers a “fun mode” button option because apparently bogging isn’t an end-in-itself, that something additional would actually help that missing, last little bit of fun-oomph that would make this the transcendent experience I’m seeking.

Or, am just so bored by my own thoughts that I need a “fun button” to keep me focused on my next update. A student recently said to me with a mixture of shock and glee: “Mlle Ladyhawke, did you know that most people would rather be shocked than be their own thoughts for a while?” Good one, I kid back. Have you read Dostoyevski’s “Grand Inquisitor” chapter where…

When I got home, I did what any fallen scholar would do! I googled my student’s claim and hoped the source was the the Onion.

It’s a piece from Science, sponsored by the reputable AAAS. Consider this encouraging quotation. “When people are spending time inside their heads, they’re markedly less happy,” says a psychology named Killingsworth. Now, if I read more Chomsky, I might incline to suspicion: so, is that why the media tries to frighten us with Ebola while tens of thousands of Americans die each year from lack of healthcare? Distraction as a cure for thinking. Consider that the number of deaths from lack of health care in our oh-so-Christian nation is about 45,000: all these people are someone’s father or mother, grandmother or grandfather, husband or wife, daughter or son. These are real people, not statistics, and just because one doesn’t know them means nothing as to what we are morally obligated to provide for them. What if they were your loved one? Does such an obvious question have no force anymore, where self-interest has supplanted compassion for one’s neighbor. And the media chugs on and on: we are told to be frightened by Ebola in the US; we are told the scientific evidence for global warming is incorrect, despite our reliance on the scientific method in so many other areas of our lives; we are shown pictures of royals visiting here while war crimes of the Bush and Obama administrations fade quickly into the background.

Let’s shop instead. ‘Tis the season to consume. Keep yourself busy, keep yourself entertained, keep yourself distracted.

Worse still, what if keeping busy is a way of avoiding our humanity. Kierkegaard writes: “People of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle. I grant them that and start with the principle that all men are boring. Or will someone be boring enough to contradict me in this?…’Boring’ can describe a person who bores others as well as one who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebians, the masses, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect, the nobility; and how strange it is that those who don’t bore themselves usually bore others while those who do bore themselves amuse others. The people that do not bore themselves are generally those who are busy in the world in one way or another, but that is just why they are the most boring, the most insufferable, of all.”

So, I pushed the button: “go on and surprise me.” Nothing happed.

I’m not busy enough.

Sources:

1. http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2014/07/people-would-rather-be-electrically-shocked-left-alone-their-thoughts

2. http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/09/17/us-usa-healthcare-deaths-idUSTRE58G6W520090917

3. Soren Kierkegaard. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life.  Alistair Hannay.  New York: Penguin Books, 1992. pp. 227-230.

Violence or Compassion

In the wake of the persistent oppression and murder of people of color in the US, I have been wondering what would be most.

I have read a number of things that say that we should be angry, and I am indeed very angry. Frankly, anger is too easy for me. And yet, anger, along with greed and delusion, according to the Buddhists, are the principal causes of suffering. Furthermore, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says or does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being lovable.” I think is is a fundamental ethical principle, very similar to the core of Jesus’ teachings. I am trying to live this because I think the way out of our capitalistic greed and our dehumanization of others is through love and compassion, not anger and violence. And yet, perhaps real change will require anger and violence. I hope not, but if the system is irreparably broken — and it very well may be — then what? I’m deeply conflicted right now.

I originally posted this on Facebook, and I asked for feedback. One, from an old friend, wrote this: “In one of Thich Nhat Thanh’s books, he says that anger is a form of suffering and as such we should have compassion for the person who is angry (even ourselves) and be able to deeply listen to her or him, so the person is truly heard. Once a person has been listened to then his or her anger will diminish. Sometimes violence,and definitely not all types of violence, happens because it’s the only way anger is truly and deeply listened to. And thus the world can be changed by compassionate listening.”

Perhaps this is the answer. Perhaps the country has become to radical and that the only way forward is violence. To be clear, I am raising a question, not calling for violence. I firmly believe it is wrong to cause intentionally the suffering of others. But, maybe we’ve reach a tipping point, or what I would call, a revolutionary moment where violence is all that is left for change. I suppose time will tell.

Hounding Thoughts

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“Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog.”

— Snoopy

Do dogs think? I don’t know, but we certainly think about them. Ancient philosophers especially enjoyed reflecting on a dog’s life and nature. “Philosophy” may mean “love of wisdom,” but philosophers love their hounds. The Greek philosophers seemed to contemplate canines as often as eudaimonia, which, if professional philosophy conferences are any indication, entails symposia and cynicism.

Diogenes of Sinope founded cynicism, a minor Socratic school, sometime in the middle of the fourth century BCE. Plato called Diogenes a mad Socrates, but Diogenes thought of himself as a dog. “I am called the dog because I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.” “Dog” in classical Greek is κύων [kyōn], κυνός [kynos]; hence, cynic. I can understand the cynics being relegated to a minor school because what parent really wants their kids living a dog’s life? Worse, picture the marketing nightmare! Come to Kynikos Academy, “where the life of the dog meets the life of a teenager”? Even Diogenes came around, having said, “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.” Helloooooo, quotation to tape to my classroom door!

Plato thought bigger: dogs should be kings! “Do you suppose…that for guarding there is any difference between the nature of a noble puppy and that of a well-born young man?” Having recently found my own puppy enjoying pilfered garbage on a thoroughly well-chewed armrest, I respectfully disagree: dog-rule would be like Animal House. In other words, I’m in.

Alas, human life is not kynikos, except for those four college years and that decade of graduate school. Accordingly, some philosophers have put a leash on their grandiose musings about dogs. Perhaps the Stoics were most down to earth. As St. Hippolytus of Rome reports: “[The Stoics] maintain that everything is in accordance with fate, and they use the following illustration: that when a dog is tied to a cart, on the one hand, if it wants to follow, it is both pulled and follows, combining what is in its power with Necessity; on the other hand, if it does not want to follow, it will be in any event necessitated. And the same holds for human beings too.” What else is there to say after that bit of saintly sagacity?

Sure, ok. Dogs are in our thoughts. Are we in theirs? Nope, says Descartes; dogs lack thoughts because they lack minds. They are mere machines, the Other 47%.

Maybe we’re being hasty. I have experimented with a beagle for about six months now and have observed external behaviors that would pass for thought in any high school history class. I have seen my beagle figure out how to get her tennis ball from under a table, and I have seen students furtively passing notes under the table. But this is a weak argument from analogy. I need more evidence to conclude that dogs and students think. I am, however, at least certain that I think. I think.

Are dogs conscious? I’ll answer by retreating to the age-old, time-honored tradition of obfuscating through name-dropping. Wittgenstein said, “One can imagine an animal angry, frightened, unhappy, happy, startled. But, hopeful? And why not? A dog believes his master is at the door, but can he also believe that his master will come the day after tomorrow?—And what can he not do here?—How do I do it?—How am I supposed to answer this?” Wittgenstein’s ultimate point is that all philosophical questions are nonsense; they are like engines idling. “Can my dog hope?” cannot be answered. Neither can “does my dog think?” or “is my dog self-aware?” Worse still, am I even so sure that I understand what I mean when I say that I hope? What if all the traditional philosophical problems were just misunderstandings? Could my father have been right all along? Philosophia panem non torrit?

Fine, my dog has feelings, and I may be mistaken to think it is meaningful even to ask if she, or any other being, has consciousness. I’ll concede to Wittgenstein that my hound can be neither sincere nor hypocritical. Still, the internet has not been kind to Wittgenstein on this point, and once I was one of those disgruntled, cyber-conspiracy nuts. Once I even sat my beagle down and tried to convince her that she was so hound-like that she was actually too hound-like. Mademoiselle, I began, you are too studied in, too self-conscious of, your role as hound. That’s bad faith, dawg.

J’accuse!

But before I finished, my beagle had wandered off. An odor had lured her away with the hope of food.

(A version of this essay appeared in my high school’s press. Names have been changed to protect my job.)