Always Missing Something

There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.

[Alfred North Whitehead]
Dialogues, prologue

Reading, viewing and listening involve constant focus-changing, as we sometimes swoop in on a stray particular and sometimes pull back to pan the whole.

Some readings or viewings approach a work head-on, while others sidle shyly up to it. Some cling to its gradual unfolding as a process in time, while others aim for a snapshot or spatial fix. Some slice it sideways, while others peer up at it from ground level.

None of these approaches is correct. There is no correctness or incorrectness about it.

At their most useful, critical concepts are what allow us access to works of art, not what block them off from us. They are ways of getting a handle on them.

A critical concept [...] is a way of trying to do things with [the work of art], some of which work and some of which do not. At its best, it picks out certain features of the work so that we can situate it within a significant context [...] different concepts will disclose different features.

Theorists are pluralists in this respect: there could be no set of concepts which opened up the work for us in its entirety.

[Terry Eagleton]
After Theory, p.93-5

Image: Momus' 'Unreliable Tour Guide'. See here.

Derrida argues [...] that something must always escape in the reading of a text, no matter how subtle or resourceful that reading.

Any commentary that aims to speak the truth of a text will find itself outflanked or outwitted by a supplementary logic which defeats the best efforts of criticism.

[Christopher Norris]
Derrida, p. 116

The Epimenides paradox. Named after Epimenides of Knossos (c. 600 BC), a possibly mythological Cretan seer, who wrote in a light-hearted poem or song that ‘Cretans are always liars’ – false if true, true if false. It seems that this only started to look like a real problem when examined retrospectively by later Greek writers.

What this paradox [...] illuminates is that any enclosed, self-referring system the left hemisphere comes up with, if taken strictly on its own terms, self-explodes: there is a member of the system that cannot be accommodated by the system.

However much rationalistic systems give the illusion of completeness – and they can be very hard to escape for those who cannot see their weaknesses – they do in fact conceal within themselves the clue of thread that leads out of the maze.

There is always an escape route from the hall of mirrors, if one looks hard enough.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 138-40, 207

'Hermeneutical injustice'

Hermeneutical injustice occurs when someone's experiences are not well understood—by themselves or by others—because these experiences do not fit any concepts known to them (or known to others), due to the historic exclusion of some groups of people from activities, such as scholarship and journalism, that shape which concepts become well known.

To understand this kind of injustice, it is useful to consider a concrete example. In the 1970s, the label "sexual harassment" was introduced to describe something that many people, especially women, had experienced since time immemorial. 

Imagine the year is 1960, before the label was introduced. Consider a woman who experiences sexual harassment in this year. She may have difficulty putting her experience into words. The difficulty that she faces is no accident. It is due (in part) to women's exclusion from full participation in the shaping of the English language. 

Now imagine it is 1980. The woman may now better understand what has happened to her. However, she may struggle to explain this experience to someone else, because the concept of sexual harassment is not yet well known. 

The difficulty she faces is, again, no accident. It is due (in part) to women's exclusion from equal participation in the institutions and industries devoted to making sense of, describing, and explaining human experiences — such as journalism, publishing, and academia. Miranda Fricker argues that women's unequal participation in the shaping of the categories through which we all understand the world makes some women's lives less intelligible, whether to themselves or to others. What is true of women here is also true of other marginalized groups.

The mere creation of the name Time was an unparalleled deliverance. To name anything by a name is to win power over it. This is the essence of primitive man's art of magic – the evil powers are constrained by naming them, and the enemy is weakened or killed by coupling certain magic procedures with his name. 

[Oswald Spengler]
The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, p. 123

Related posts:-
Mono / Poly
The Creation of Meaning
Fiction from Fiction
Entertaining Ideas
Make It Personal
You laugh at my back, and I'll laugh at yours
Solid Ground
The Colour Wheel
Walk a Straight Line
Testing new opinions and courting new impressions
Boxed Off
Don't Commit to It
Hold it still 
Shades of gray
The Perils of Radical Subjectivity
The Dangers of Dogmatism
Postmodern Soup
Solid Ground 
Arrows pointing at Arrows
Short Cuts

One Love?

Love is not primarily "caused" by a specific object, but a lingering quality in a person which is only actualized by a certain "object".

Hatred is a passionate wish for destruction; love is a passionate affirmation of an "object"; it is not an "affect" but an active striving and inner relatedness, the aim of which is the happiness, growth, and freedom of its object. It is a readiness which, in principle, can turn to any person and object including ourselves.

Exclusive love is a contradiction in itself. 

To be sure, it is not accidental that a certain person becomes the "object" of manifest love [...] The important point, however, is that love for a particular "object" is only the actualization and concentration of lingering love with regard to one person; it is not, as the idea of romantic love would have it, that there is only the one person in the world whom one can love, that it is the great chance of one's life to find that person, and that love for him results in a withdrawal from all others.

The kind of love which can only be experienced with regard to one person demonstrates by this very fact that it is not love but a sado-masochistic attachment.

The basic affirmation contained in love is directed towards the beloved person as an incarnation of essentially human qualities.

Love for one person implies love for man as such.

Love for man as such is not, as it is frequently supposed to be, an abstraction coming "after" the love for a specific person, or an enlargement of the experience with a specific "object"; it is its premise, although, genetically, it is acquired in the contact with concrete individuals.

From this it follows that my own self, in principle, is as much an object of my love as another person. The affirmation of my own life, happiness, growth, freedom, is rooted in the presence of the basic readiness of and ability for such an affirmation.

If an individual has this readiness, he has it also towards himself; if he can only "love" others, he cannot love at all.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.98-100


Love between men and women, and love for family and friends, is often possessive, exclusive, limited, and mixed with selfish feelings. There's an expectation of getting back at least as much as one gives.

Such love might seem quite deep, but it easily vanishes if it doesn't live up to expectations. What's more, the sort of love we feel for those close to us is often accompanied by a feeling of distance, or even hostility toward 'strangers', those who could pose a threat to ourselves and to those we love.

True love and true compassion can be extended to our adversaries, while love and compassion mixed with attachment can't include anyone we see as an enemy.

[...] true love can't be polarized, restricted to one or two specific beings, or contaminated with partiality. What's more, it should be completely disinterested and not expect anything in return.

Love, here, means total, unconditional love for all beings without any distinction or partiality.

One of the principal topics for meditation is to begin by thinking of someone you love deeply, and letting that feeling of love and generosity fill your heart and mind. Then you break out of the cage that restricts that love to a particular person and extend it to all those for whom your feelings are neutral or indifferent. Finally, you include in your love all those you consider as enemies. That's true love.

[Matthieu Ricard]
The Monk and the Philosopher, p.193-4


Related posts:-
Everything is Connected
True Love
Positive Space
Giving and Receiving
Alone Together
What are the people saying?
Communal Benefits
Firm Foundations
Everything is alive
Selfishness and Self-love
Rights and Responsibilities
Love Your Self
Playing the Art Game | Erich Fromm: Spontaneity

Love Your Self

Selfishness is not identical with self-love but with its very opposite.

Selfishness is one kind of greediness. Like all greediness, it contains an insatiability, as a consequence of which there is never any real satisfaction. Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.

Close observation shows that while the selfish person is always anxiously concerned with himself, he is never satisfied, is always restless, always driven by the fear of not getting enough, of missing something, of being deprived of something. He is filled with burning envy of anyone who might have more.

If we observe closer still, especially the unconscious dynamics, we find that this type of person is basically not fond of himself, but deeply dislikes himself.

Selfishness is rooted in this very lack of fondness for oneself.

The person who is not fond of himself, who does not approve of himself, is in constant anxiety concerning his own self. He has not the inner security which can exist only on the basis of genuine fondness and affirmation. He must be concerned about himself, greedy to get everything for himself, since basically he lacks security and satisfaction.

The same holds true with the so-called narcissistic person, who is not so much concerned with getting things for himself as with admiring himself.

While on the surface it seems that these persons are very much in love with themselves, they are actually not fond of themselves, and their narcissism - like selfishness - is an overcompensation for the basic lack of self-love.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.98-100


To be concerned for another is to be present to them in the form of an absence, a certain self-forgetful attentiveness. If one is loved or trusted in return, it is largely this which gives one the self-confidence to forget about oneself, a perilous matter otherwise.

We need to think about ourselves partly because of fear, which the assurance which flows from being trusted allows us to overcome.

[Terry Eagleton]
After Theory


Related posts:-
One Love?
True Love
Positive Space
Talk Up, Feel Down
Firm Foundations 
Forget Your Self

Postmodern Soup

The claim that our models of complex systems cannot be perfect introduces a next layer of problems: what is it then that is described by our models?

Are they merely constructions or instruments, or do they reflect reality in some way? Both claims have had strong support.

One way of naming these two traditions is to say that the attempt to reflect nature (accurately) is a modern approach, and that giving up that attempt is post-modern.

[Paul Cilliers]
'Boundaries, Hierarchies and Networks in Complex Systems', p. 3

All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In painting, realistic depiction gave way to freakish distortions of shape and colour and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes, and [...] blank white canvas.

In poetry, the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure, and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favour of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions. In architecture, ornamentation, human scale, garden space, and traditional craftsmanship went out the window [...] and buildings were "machines for living" made of industrial materials in boxy shapes.

Why did the artistic elite spearhead a movement that called for such masochism? In part it was touted as a reaction to the complacency of the Victorian era and to the naïve bourgeois belief in certain knowledge, inevitable progress, and the justice of the social order.

Postmodernism was even more aggressively relativistic, insisting that there are many perspectives on the world, none of them privileged. It denied even more vehemently the possibility of meaning, knowledge, progress, and shared cultural values.

It was more Marxist and far more paranoid, asserting that claims to truth and progress were tactics of political domination which privileged the interests of straight white males. According to the doctrine, mass-produced commodities and media-disseminated images and stories were designed to make authentic experience impossible.

The goal of postmodernist art is to help us break out of this prison. The artists try to preempt cultural motifs and representational techniques by taking capitalist icons (such as ads, package designs, and pinup photos) and defacing them, exaggerating them, or presenting them in odd contexts.

In postmodernist literature, authors comment on what they are writing whilst they are writing it. In postmodernist architecture, materials and details from different kinds of buildings and historical periods are thrown together in incongruous ways [...] Postmodernist films contain sly references to the filmmaking process or to earlier films.

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.409-11

Ways of Seeing

Part of the appeal of films is that they offer us the opportunity for exploration.

They are a way to explore the world (and imaginary worlds) in lieu - or instead - of physical exploration. In our lifetime we may never have the opportunity to travel to certain places and see certain sights. Film can act as a substitute, allowing us to experience the world without traveling it.

In this sense, we could enjoy a film entirely for the landscapes that it has allowed us to travel through and inhabit; film as short vacation. If this is the case, then the plot of the film may be little more than an excuse, to be in this place or that place. Yet its also a practical and necessary diversion - a way of arbitrarily defining time, saying 'enough of this place, let's go somewhere else.'

Computer games also offer the same opportunity.


Narrative fiction engages this ability to explore hypothetical worlds, whether for edification - expanding the number of scenarios whose outcomes can be predicted - or for pleasure - vicariously experiencing love, adulation, exploration, or victory.

A compelling story may simulate juicy gossip about desirable or powerful people, put us in an exciting time or place, tickle our language instincts with well-chosen words, and teach us something new about the entanglements of families, politics, or love.

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.406


Related posts:-
Field of Vision

Return of the Repressed

Direction implies exclusion, and exclusion means that very many psychic elements that could play their part in life are denied the right to exist because they are incompatible with the general attitude.

The normal man can follow the general trend without injury to himself; but the man who takes to the back streets and alleys because he cannot endure the broad highway will be the first to discover the psychic elements that are waiting to play their part in the life of the collective.

Here the artist's relative lack of adaptation turns out to his advantage; it enables him to follow his own yearnings far from the beaten path, and to discover what it is that would meet the unconscious needs of his age.

Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking. The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present.

Thus, just as the one-sidedness of the individual's conscious attitude is corrected by reaction from the unconscious, so art represents a process of self-regulation in the life of nations and epochs.

[C.G. Jung]
On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
found in The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism
, p.1001-2

[On modern art] ... though seeming to deal with aesthetic problems, it is really performing a work of psychological education on the public by breaking down and destroying their previous aesthetic views of what is beautiful in form and meaningful in content.

The pleasingness of the artistic product is replaced by chill abstractions of the most subjective nature which brusquely slam the door on the naive and romantic delight in the senses and their obligatory love for the object.

This tells us, in plain and universal language, that the prophetic spirit of art has turned away from the old object relationship and towards the - for the time being - dark chaos of subjectivisms.

[C.G. Jung]
The Undiscovered Self, p.77

The great project of modern art was to diagnose, and cure, the sickness unto death of modern humankind [...]

[Its artistic mission] is to identify and strip away the false sense of routine experience and interpretive framing provided by conformist mass commercial society, and to make us experience nakedly and anew the immediacy of reality through our peeled and rejuvenated senses.

This therapeutic work is also a spiritual mission, in that a community of such transformed human beings would, in theory, be able to construct a better kind of society.

The enemies of the process are cooptation, commercial exploitation and reproduction, and kitsch ... Fresh, raw experience - to which artists have an unmediated and childlike access - is routinized, compartmentalized, and dulled into insensibility by society.

[Frederick Turner]

The merit of the theory of the arts as safety-valve is that it keeps them within the syntax of the engine while giving them a special function. It doesn’t exaggerate their function, since the inaugurating force and momentum of the engine don’t issue from the valve.

The best text I know on this matter is [William] Epson’s poem ‘Your Teeth are Ivory Towers’[…]:

“The safety valve alone
Knows the worst truth about the engine; only the child
Has not yet been misled.”

Epson says that ‘the relation of the artist to his society may include acting as safety valve or keeping the fresh eye, etc., of the child, and therefore can’t be blamed out of hand for escapism or infantilism.’

Still, to say that poetry is like a child’s babble makes a concession as much as a claim. From a public point of view, the child is just a pretty form of anarchy. The poem takes up the question and says, ruefully, that it was feasible to carry anarchy so long as the official values of a society were sustained; by Christianity, for instance, or by secular power:

“We could once carry anarchy, when we ran
Christ and the magnificent milord
As rival pets; the thing is, if we still can

Lacking either.”

That is: ‘it is not clear that in the new great machine or mass societies, which accept neither ideal, there is the same room for the artist.’ Epson means, I think, that the poet’s anarchy had its meaning in a particular relation to the order it challenged.

It accords with my own feeling that the best way in which an artist can be present is in conflict with his society.

Conflict, in that formula, means a specific engagement, necessarily now on the margins of a society which typically like to pretend that it has no margin at all, every square inch of the space of experience being already filled.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 89-90

It is, however, possible that the remedy for ills of conscious purpose lies with the individual. There is what Freud called the royal road to the unconscious.

He was referring to dreams, but I think we should lump together dreams and the creativity of art, or the perception of art, and poetry and such things. And I would include with these the best of religion.

These are activities in which the whole individual is involved. The artist may have a conscious purpose to sell his picture, even perhaps a conscious purpose to make it. But in the making he must necessarily relax that arrogance in favour of a creative experience in which his conscious mind plays only a small part.

The arts, poetry, music, and the humanities similarly are areas in which more of the mind is active then mere consciousness would admit.

We might say that in creative art man must experience himself - his total self - as a cybernetic model.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Conscious Purpose versus Nature' & 'Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation'), p.444, 453

Pornography shows us nature’s daemonic heart, those eternal forces at work beneath and beyond social convention.

Pornography cannot be separated from art; the two interpenetrate each other, far more than humanistic criticism has admitted. Geoffrey Hartman rightly says, “Great art is always flanked by its dark sisters, blasphemy and pornography.”

[Camille Paglia]
Sexual Personae, p.24-25

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Wild Things
Casting a Shadow
Conscious / Unconscious
Walk a Straight Line
Do Not Disturb 
Postmodern Soup

Personal / Universal

Personal                              -                      Universal
Individual                           -                      Collective

Personal causes have as much or as little to do with a work of art as the soil with the plant that springs from it.

We can certainly learn to understand some of the plant's peculiarities by getting to know its habitat, and for the botanist this is an important part of his equipment. But nobody will maintain that everything essential has then been discovered about the plant itself.

[...] the special significance of a true work of art resides in the fact that it has escaped from the limitations of the personal and has soared beyond the personal concerns of its creator.

[...] a work of art is not transmitted or derived - it is a creative reorganization of those very conditions to which a causalistic psychology must always reduce it [...] the meaning and individual quality of a work of art inhere within it and not in its extrinsic determinants.

[C.G. Jung]
On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
found in The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism
, p.994

The kind of blogging I do has to be based in personal obsession, in spats and rivalry, in a kind of light, oblique but perpetual autobiography.

There has to be a subject for all this data to make any sort of situated sense, and that subject has to be seen to have a body, clothes, a way to wear those clothes, and so on.

As soon as I get tugged out of that embodied, situated world I get bored and anxious and mistrustful.

I want to know always who's speaking, how old they are, what culture they were raised in, what their vested interests are, and so on.

For me, the Anon is suspicious because I can't see what s/he looks like or what life his/her comment is rooted in. For the Anons (or some of them), I'm the suspicious one, because my comments are far too obviously rooted in an ego, a persona.


Somehow, a creative product must give a sense of reconciliation, of having resolved in an aesthetic and harmonious way the discords and disharmonies present in the original situation.

The work of art, for example, for a moment re-orders and brings into balance the tensions of form and space, and in so doing, moderates the inner tensions of the observer, giving him a sense of encounter and fulfilment.

By identifying ourselves, however fleetingly, with the creator, we can participate in the integrating process which he has carried out for himself.  

The more universal the problem with which the artist is dealing, the more universal his appeal.

This is why the pursuit of the personal, the neurotic, and the infantile in the work of artists is ultimately unrewarding, although it will always have some interest.

[Anthony Storr]
The Dynamics of Creation, p.236

[...] the mind of an artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent, like Shakespeare's mind [...] There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.

All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance that was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded.

Clearly her mind has by no means 'consumed all impediments and become incandescent'. On the contrary, it is harassed and distracted with hates and grievances.

One might say, I continued, laying the book down beside Pride and Prejudice, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire.

Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot.

[Virginia Woolf]
A Room of One's Own, p.66, 68, 80-1

Montaigne’s subject, officially, was himself, but this was mostly as a means to facilitate the discussion […] He was mainly interested in discovering things about himself, making us discover things about himself, and presenting matters that could be generalised - generalised to the entire human race.

Among the inscriptions in his study was a remark by the Latin poet Terence: Homo sum, humani a me nil alienum puto - I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 191

It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy has hitherto been: a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; moreover, that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy have every time constituted the real germ of life out of which the entire plant has grown. 

To explain how a philosopher's most remote metaphysical assertions have actually been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to ask oneself first: what morality does this (does he -) aim at? 

I accordingly do not believe a 'drive to knowledge' to be the father of philosophy, but that another drive has, here as elsewhere, only employed knowledge (and false knowledge!) as a tool. But anyone who looks at the basic drives of mankind to see to what extent they may in precisely this connection have come into play as inspirational spirits (or demons and kobolds-) will discover that they have all at some time or other practised philosophy - and that each one of them would be only too glad to present itself as the ultimate goal of existence and as the legitimate master of all the other drives. 

For every drive is tyrannical: and it is as such that it tries to philosophize. - In the case of scholars, to be sure, in the case of really scientific men, things may be different - 'better', if you will - there may really exist something like a drive to knowledge there, some little independent clockwork which, when wound up, works bravely on without any of the scholar's other drives playing any essential part. The scholar's real 'interests' therefore generally lie in quite another direction, perhaps in his family or in making money or in politics; it is indeed, almost a matter of indifference whether his little machine is set up in this region of science or that, whether the 'promising young worker makes himself into a good philologist or a specialist in fungus or a chemist - he is not characterized by becoming this or that. 

In the philosopher, on the contrary, there is nothing whatever impersonal; and, above all, his morality bears decided and decisive testimony to who he is - that is to say, to the order of rank the innermost drives of his nature stand in relative to one another.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 6

When […] Kant philosophizes, say on ethical ideas, he maintains the validity of his theses for men of all times and places. 

He does not say this in so many words, for, for himself and his readers, it is something that goes without saying. In his æsthetics he formulates the principles, not of Phidias's art, or Rembrandt's art, but of Art generally. 

But what he poses as necessary forms of thought are in reality only necessary forms of Western thought, though a glance at Aristotle and his essentially different conclusions should have sufficed to show that Aristotle's intellect, not less penetrating than his own, was of different structure from it. 

The categories of the Westerner are just as alien to Russian thought as those of the Chinaman or the ancient Greek are to him. For us, the effective and complete comprehension of Classical root-words is just as impossible as that of Russian and Indian, and for the modern Chinese or Arab, with their utterly different intellectual constitutions, “philosophy from Bacon to Kant" has only a curiosity-value. 

It is this that is lacking to the Western thinker, the very thinker in whom we might have expected to find it — insight into the historically relative character of his data, which are expressions of one specific existence and one only; knowledge of the necessary limits of their validity; the conviction that his "unshakable" truths and “eternal" views are simply true for him and eternal for his world-view; the duty of looking beyond them to find out what the men of other Cultures have with equal certainty evolved out of themselves. 

That and nothing else will impart completeness to the philosophy of the future, and only through an understanding of the living world shall we understand the symbolism of history. Here there is nothing constant, nothing universal. We must cease to speak of the forms of “Thought," the principles of "Tragedy," the mission of The State." 

Universal validity involves always the fallacy of arguing from particular to particular.

[Oswald Spengler]
The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, p. 23

Within and for the purposes of the world that Classical man evolved for himself, the Classical mathematic was a complete thing - it is merely not so for us. 

We, having minds differently constituted, must not argue from our habits to theirs and treat their mathematic as a “first stage" in the development of “Mathematics." […] It must be repeated, “Mathematics" is an illusion. 

A mathematical, and, generally, a scientific way of thinking is right, convincing, a "necessity of thought," when it completely expresses the life-feeling proper to it. Otherwise it is either impossible, futile and senseless, or else, as we in the arrogance of our historical soul like to say, “primitive." 

The modern mathematic, though "true" only for the Western spirit, is undeniably a master-work of that spirit; and yet to Plato it would have seemed a ridiculous and painful aberration from the path leading to the "true" - to wit, the Classical - mathematic. 

And so with ourselves. Plainly, we have almost no notion of the multitude of great ideas belonging to other Cultures that we have suffered to lapse because our thought with its limitations has not permitted us to assimilate them, or (which comes to the same thing) has led us to reject them as false, superfluous, and nonsensical.

[Oswald Spengler]
The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, p. 67

Related posts:-

Modern Life is Rubbish

[...] putting down the present is a back-handed way of putting down one's rivals: "Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead."

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.403

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(Moronic) Cynicism
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The Creation of Meaning

The real difference between art and science lies in the specific form in which they give us the same object in quite different ways: art in the form of 'seeing' and 'perceiving' or 'feeling', science in the form of knowledge (in the strict sense, by concepts).

[...] art makes us 'see' 'conclusions without premisses', whereas knowledge makes us penetrate into the mechanism which produces the 'conclusions' out of the 'premisses'.

This is an important distinction, for it enables us to understand that a novel on the 'cult', however profound, may draw attention to its 'lived' effects, but cannot give an understanding of it; it may put the question of the 'cult' on the agenda, but it cannot define the means which will make it possible to remedy these effects.

[...] in order to answer most of the questions posed for us by the existence and specific nature of art, we are forced to produce an adequate (scientific) knowledge of the processes which produce the 'aesthetic effect' of a work of art. In other words, in order to answer the question of the relationship between art and knowledge we must produce a knowledge of art.

[Louis Althusser]
'A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre',The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism, p.1481-2

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Infinite Doorways
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A Familiar Story


However subtly, however difficult to discern, what we believe issues in what we do. Our theories are compasses, if not maps.1
Ah, you believe only houses are constructed? I construct myself continually and I construct you, and you do the same. And the construction lasts as long as the material of our feelings doesn't crumble and as long as the cement of our will lasts. Why do you believe firmness of will is so highly touted, and constancy of feelings? The former has only to waver a little, and the latter has only to be altered by one degree or change ever so slightly, and it's goodbye to our reality! We realize immediately that it was only our delusion.2
These creative fantasies, this imaginative circumambulating of one's partner, are of the greatest importance in every human relationship ... Everyone needs to fantasy about himself, to circle about and awaken his own potential in mythological or fairy tale form.3
The psyche constructs; it invents images and the mind follows them as its guides; "guiding fictions," Adler calls them.4
We see what our ideas ... allow us to see.5


This is a story about …

A, B and C are flatmates as well as good friends. For various reasons A and B frequently forget to wash their dishes, meaning that C will often find himself washing up for them. This is a regular and ongoing situation. How should C feel about this, and how should he act? Let’s imagine how the story may progress ...

1. C could have words with A and B and politely ask them to do their own dishes, explaining that it is unfair that he should have to clean up after them.

2. He could indignantly demand that they change their selfish ways, pointing out that it is ridiculous that they should expect him to have to repeatedly wash up their mess.

3. He could take the route of martyrdom and carry on doing their dishes for them, all the while feeling like his good nature is being exploited and building up a slow burning resentment for his two friends.

There are clearly many ways of handling the situation, dependent upon how C chooses to view what is happening to him. This, then, is the crux of the matter; how C views the situation will determine how he reacts to it.
What is your story?


“The way we imagine our lives is the way we are going to go on living our lives. For the manner in which we tell ourselves about what is going on is the genre through which events become experiences.” 6

C’s view of the situation will arise from whatever story he chooses to tell himself. Let’s look again at the three courses of action offered above. In the first, C tells himself a story in which A, B and himself are all reasonable people, people who are connected through the primary bond of friendship – a bond that is forged upon important notions of respect and equality. In this story, C believes in his friends, and believes that if he gives them a chance, they will do the right thing.

The second story paints a different picture. In it C has, against his will, been shunted into the role of victim, a role that he is not comfortable playing. He has never played this role before and feels that it is not befitting of his character, and he will do all he can to escape this fate. The bond of friendship has been seconded to power relations. C feels that he is being taken advantage of, and his only course of action – his only way to regain power, and an equal footing with his friends - is to fight against this inequality. C becomes the freedom fighter, and all he wants is justice.

The third story once again has C as the victim, only this time it is a role that C feels somewhat more comfortable with. Whilst C loves his friends, he realises that they are only human and that, as such, they are privy to all the weaknesses that befit our kind. He sees these weaknesses as inevitable; an essential component of the bittersweet nature of human relations. In this fantasy C is the martyr, and his suffering is an inescapable part of his lot.

These are just three examples of the many stories that could be told in this situation. We'll consider one final story.
Carry each other


In each of the examples above, it has been taken for granted that to have to wash up after someone else is to some extent an indignity; a sign of subservience, or of unbalanced power relations. But what if we were to re-frame this act? What if, instead of being a subservient act, it was considered an affectionate one?

What if to wash up after someone else was seen as a privilege – a way of making manifest your affection for the other person?

In this instance, A, B and C are good friends. At its best friendship contains an implicit contract: we carry our friends when they are weak, just as they carry us when we are weak. For this contract to be effective, we must first recognize that we are all imperfect; because if nobody is perfect, then it follows that we all must be carried in some way, and at some time. Through carrying others, we also allow ourselves to be carried.

In practical terms, this carrying could range from arguing on behalf of a friend (the archetype of this form of carrying being the lawyer; that is, someone who argues professionally on your behalf) to providing council in a time of need (the psychotherapist) to literally carrying and taking care of someone because they are injured (the medic). We all carry each other daily, in moments and acts that may often go unseen.

The importance of this idea within society can be seen in its countless repetition within the various stories that have guided us over time; from ancient myth and religious parable, through to the plotlines of various popular films.

To carry those weaker than us is an act of affection that has its roots in love. Yet, whilst it may be easy to love our friends, the dictum to ‘love thy neighbour’ may be a little harder to follow. Psychologist Erich Fromm talks about this distinction;

“… [love] is inseparably connected with the social realm. If love means to have a loving attitude towards everybody, if love is a character trait, it must necessarily exist in one’s relationship not only with one’s family and friends, but towards those with whom one is in contact through one’s work, business, profession. There is no ‘division of labour’ between love for one’s own and love for strangers. On the contrary, the condition for the existence of the former is the existence of the latter.”7

Fromm sees love as an act of faith; in this sense, to love someone – to express faith in one human being - is to express faith in all human beings: to love everyone. It isn’t that you love this person; rather, you simply love. In this way love becomes a capacity, and to be able to love is to be able to love all, not only the beloved. He goes on to contrast this love with the idea of fairness;

“While a great deal of lip service is paid to the religious ideal of love of one’s neighbour, our relations are actually determined, at their best, by the principle of fairness. Fairness meaning not to use fraud and trickery in the exchange of commodities and services, and in the exchange of feelings. ‘I give you as much as you give me’, in material goods as well as in love, is the prevalent ethical maxim in capitalist society.” 8

Fromm suggests that in our relations we may often be guided by an ethics of fairness instead of an ethics based on love. Why is this distinction important? He goes on to say;

“Fairness ethics lend themselves to confusion with the ethics of the Golden Rule. The maxim ‘to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’ can be interpreted as meaning ‘be fair in your exchange with others’. But actually, it was formulated originally as a more popular version of the Biblical ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’. Indeed, the Jewish-Christian norm of brotherly love is entirely different from fairness ethics. It means to love your neighbour, that is, to feel responsible for and one with him, which fairness ethics means not to feel responsible, and one, but distant and separate; it means to respect the right of your neighbour, but not to love him.” 9

We see then, that to ‘love thy neighbour’ is also to feel responsible for them, not simply to respect their status in a bond based on "fairness". From the feeling of universal responsibility flowers the will to carry.

With this in mind, we’ll return to our story. In this instance, A, B and C are not strangers; they are friends. We’ve already reframed the act of washing a dish – it is no longer a subservient chore, rather it is a way of showing affection, a way of caressing; a concrete act of love that says (if only to go unheard): “I will carry you because I love you.”
A galaxy of ideas


We’ve seen how a new idea – in this instance reframing the act of washing up dishes - can allow access to different ways of thinking, and can open the page on a new story.

We are all caught within our own webs of meaning, the heroes or victims of the stories that we tell ourselves. If we see the mind as a metropolis, then our city limits are the extent of the tales we currently tell and the meanings that we value. If our vocabulary is limited then we may reside within a town; a constant repetition of familiar places and people – and, indeed, this may be a comfort. For others, the city may stretch for miles, with districts dangerous and unknown. And always we may wonder: what galaxies of meaning lie outside of our own?

The advantage of a new idea is that it allows us access to new areas, and in so doing enables us to enlarge our internal landscape. New ideas can also, as in the story of the dishes, allow us to reframe old ones, giving a different vantage point on a familiar area.

If we believe, as psychologist James Hillman suggests, that we are the “creation of the stories we tell ourselves”10 then it may be worth, every once in a while, reading them through.

Who are we playing?

Have we outgrown this story?

Does it still speak to us?

How did it start?

And how, more importantly, might it end?

Related posts:-
Construct it differently


1 Adam Phillips. Side Effects, p.77
2 Pirandello, Luigi. One, No One & One Hundred Thousand, p.41
3 Guggenbühl-Craig, Adolf. Power In The Helping Professions, p.47
4 Hillman, James. Healing Fiction, p.104
5 Ibid., p.36
6 Ibid., p.23
7 Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving, p.101
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid., p.101-2
10 Hillman, James. We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse (co-authored with Michael Ventura), p.27

Some more thoughts on carrying

And conversation: we may often betray ourselves when trying to communicate through speech. We often don't have the time to think things through as much as we'd like, and the temporal demands of conversation may not allow for the precaution of an internal proof-reader. With this in mind, we may end up communicating poorly what it is we intend to get across, or even communicating something else entirely.

Carrying in this instance would be a kind of pardoning by the other, a filling-in of your gaps and an active searching for your intentions. In carrying you, they would do their best to understand what it is you are trying to communicate. The opposite would be to purposefully misunderstand or obfuscate your intentions.

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Living with Roughness
Carry Each Other

A Safe Distance

Safety                   -          Danger
Distanced             -          Close
Frictionless          -          Friction
Disconnected       -          Connected
Formal                  -          Informal
Smooth                 -          Rough
Efficient               -           Inefficient
Ideal                     -           Real

Ideals can only exist in the sky, at a safe and comfortable distance from the earth.

Sidney Jourard, a University of Florida psychologist, visited cafés in different parts of the world and recorded the number of times two people who were sharing a coffee touched each other.

In London, the tally was 0; in Gainesville, Florida, 2; in Paris 110; and in San Juan, Puerto Rico, more than 180.

Most sociologists would agree that societies like those in the Mediterranean countries (Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, for example) are contact societies, whereas the more northern societies in countries such as Holland, Great Britain, and the United States are not.

The physician P. N. K. Heylings wrote an article in the British Medical Journal entitled, "The No Touching Epidemic - an English Disease." The symptoms he describes include feelings of loneliness and isolation, doubts about other people's loyalties, feelings of insecurity, emotional inhibitions, unusual reactions both to being inadvertently touched and to touching others, inability to communicate with people standing nearby, and antagonism to massages as a form of therapy.

Other observational studies to determine the effects of touch on public behavior have been conducted in New England. In one study, shoppers were touched by a salesman offering pizza samples. The customers who were touched were more influenced by the salesperson, they liked that person more, and more of them felt the salesperson liked them more.

[Tiffany Field]
Touch, p.22-4

I remember growing up in Romania where if you wanted to make a good friend you would have to make what would now be called a ‘racist’ joke. There were a patchwork of ethnicities in my area and […] the easiest, most succinct way to get on someone’s nerves was to say something about [their race].

There was [an] ease […] and there wasn’t really limits, there wasn’t really the idea of getting into trouble for saying [something offensive].

I feel like now because we’re always trying to have purely consensual, purely don’t-step-on-my-toes relationships, it acts as a buffer between people. You can never really reach out and have those [close relationships].

I’ve always likened this to banter on a construction crew or the military - their lives depend on each other, and they’re not going to be courteous to each other because that’s how you build trust. Because we’re trying to have this really ‘pleasant’ society - you never want to be offensive - but that also keeps you away from [close] relationships. There’s always a layer of keep-away.

[Alex Kaschuta]
‘Patrick Deneen - Liberalism and the Meaning of Freedom’, YouTube

Forgiveness, not tolerance, furnished the proper corrective to the egoism and self-righteousness of groups, Niebuhr argued. "The religious ideal of forgiveness is more profound and more difficult than the rational virtue of tolerance.”

Niebuhr endorsed G. K. Chesterton's observation that tolerance is the attitude of those who do not believe in anything.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, made it possible for contending groups to fight to the death without denying each other’s humanity - “to engage in social struggles with a religious reservation.” Since the sources of social conflict could not be eradicated, it was “more important to preserve the spirit of forgiveness amidst the struggles than to seek islands of neutrality.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.375-6

Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of sex, have set themselves against nature.

Sex is power. Identity is power. In western culture, there are no nonexploitative relationships. Everyone has killed in order to live. Nature’s universal law of creation from destruction operates in mind as in matter. As Freud, Nietzsche’s heir, asserts, identity is conflict. Each generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.

Like art, sex is fraught with symbols. Family romance means that adult sex is always representation, ritualistic acting out of vanished realities. A perfectly humane eroticism may be impossible.

In western culture, there can never be a purely physical or anxiety-free sexual encounter. Every attraction, every pattern of touch, every orgasm is shaped by psychic shadows.

[Camille Paglia]
Sexual Personae, p.2, 4

G. Wilson Knight remarks, “The Apollonian is the created ideal, forms of visionary beauty that can be seen, sight rather than sound, intellectually clear to us.”

We contemplate the Apollonian from an aesthetic distance. In Dionysian identification, space is collapsed. The eye cannot maintain point of view. Dionysus can’t see the forest for the trees. The wet dream of Dionysian liquidity takes the hard edges off things. Objects and ideas are fuzzy, misty—that mistiness Johnny Mathis sings of in love.

Dionysian empathy is Dionysian dissolution. Sparagmos is sharing, breaking bread or body together. Dionysian identification is fellow feeling, extended or enlarged identity. It passed into Christianity, which tried to separate Dionysian love from Dionysian nature. But as I said, there is no agape or caritas without eros. The continuum of empathy and emotion leads to sex.

Greek theater formalizes the eye-relations of group or polis: it captures and distances Dionysus, binding down nature to be looked at and therefore cleansed.

The rites of Dionysus, as depicted in the Bacchae, were participatory and free-form, to the point of chaos. The conversion of bacchanal into liturgy happened at Athens. The Greek drive for Apollonian conceptualization made program and structure out of the spring fertility festival of Dionysus. Greek theater was an exercise of the eye.

The audience, sitting and looking, was strengthening the cultural suppression of chthonian nature. It was intensifying eye and mind in their war with the body.

[Camille Paglia]
Sexual Personae, p.98, 104

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Maintaining the balance

Ways of being touched

Many touch therapies go by another name.

As Diane Ackerman notes in A Natural History of the Senses, "Touch is so powerful a healer that we go to professional touchers (doctors, hairdressers, masseuses, dance instructors, cosmeticians, barbers, gynecologists, tailors, back manipulators, prostitutes and manicurists) and frequent employers of touch - discotheques, shoeshine stands and mud baths."

It seems that, as our culture places more restrictions on touch within human relationships, alternative forms of touch become more popular.

It is as if we needed a minimum of touch for our emotional well-being and physical wellness, so we find acceptable ways, and sometimes functional ways (e.g. going to the hairdresser), of being touched.

[Tiffany Field]
Touch, p.108


Related posts:-
Touch Societies
Maintaining the balance
The Sensual World

The Shock of the Unintelligible

... when the social contract with reality is abandoned, and literary works no longer speak as though they were reporting fact, hairs start to bristle.

Not the least of the weaknesses of the debate on commitment is that it ignores the effect produced by works whose own formal laws pay no heed to coherent effects. So long as it fails to understand what the shock of the unintelligible can communicate, the whole dispute resembles shadowboxing.

[Theodor Adorno]
On Commitment, Chap. 1, para. 3

Image: I-BE-AREA

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