Assuming a Position



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"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. The Anon's habitual mode of attack is therefore ad hominem, but since it comes from -- apparently -- no-one it could also be described as ab nemo."

[Momus]

"To disagree with three-fourths of the British public is one of the first requisites of sanity"

[Oscar Wilde]


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What is a "position"?

Psychologist Eric Berne described a position as a "simple predictive statement which influences all of the individual's transactions [...] Unless something or somebody intervenes, [a person] spends the rest of his life stabilizing his position and dealing with situations that threaten it: by avoiding them, warding off certain elements or manipulating them provocatively so that they are transformed from threats into justifications."1

We could see a position as a castle. We may live within it, and we may, when we need to, man the barracks and defend it against attack.

When we look for someone's position we are looking for their epistemology; the ideas and beliefs that lead them to think and act the way that they do. To see their castle is to see the individual bricks that it is composed of, and, if we look hard enough, it is to see the foundations upon which it rests.

In understanding a person's position we bring perspective to our image of them, framing their behaviour within a larger picture. When their thoughts and actions no longer clutter the foreground, we are able to relativise their claims to truth; instead of being the whole truth - transcendent, impersonal - they become someone's truth. A person's position is the centre of their individual mythology, and both influences, and is influenced by, the stories that they tell themselves about the world. To see a position is to see a person's fictions, the meanings and values that are guiding them.

When we can see a story, and when we can frame this story within a network of alternative fictions, we may feel less threatened by its otherness. For example, when Oscar Wilde tells us that "The first duty in life is to assume a pose", we may find his words incommensurable with our own experience, and may reject his statement as false. If we understand Wilde's background - his fiction - and can see his position, then we may be less tempted to reject his statement on the grounds of its truth. For Wilde, the idea of the pose may have been an important one in giving meaning to life, and it may be that it could also mean something to us. Be if we take his truth as literal - as objective, as transcending the realms of subjective fiction - then we are forced into a corner, into either accepting his truth and modifying our own position accordingly, or rejecting it outright. If, on the other hand, we are able to relativise his truth, and to frame it within his position - and this position within a system of multiple positions - then our tight corner disappears. His truth can exist without threatening to annihilate ours.

Because it is no longer in the foreground, making claims to universality and thus threatening our own truth, we may feel more able to approach, and entertain, Wilde's idea; to visit his castle, look around, note the structure, the decor. To see his position, and to frame it within a landscape of alternative positions, is to allow it room to exist.



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Monotheism & Polytheism

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We may often fool ourselves into thinking that there is such a thing as a definitive position, a castle of castles, and that we may inhabit it, or that someone else may. This belief springs from what we could call a monotheistic view: it has in mind a "perfect castle" and measures all others against this standard. When we're in a monotheistic mode (thinking with the mono-view) then we may come to think that we'd prefer it if there was only one castle. The fact that there appear to be many becomes something of an inconvenience - how, after all, do we know which one is the "right" one? Perhaps we can see from a distance whether a castle fits the bill or not, but appearances may be deceptive. We may have to visit each one and check. This is, of course, to assume that we've managed to make it out of our front door in the first place. It may, after all, be easier to decide that ours is the "right" one and leave it at that. That way we won't have to get tired wandering around, and we won't risk getting lost on the journey.

The monotheistic view has its roots in the Christian tradition, and the idea that there is one God, and one way (thus, one castle - "God's castle"). This one way - the "true path" - is exemplified through the figure of Christ, and to deviate from it is to live erroneously.

We find an alternative view in the form of polytheism, which has its roots in the Greek tradition, and the idea that there are many gods, each representing different facets of the human psyche. The polytheistic view invites us to think in terms of modes.

If we consider our castles with the polytheistic view, then we see that there is no such thing as a definitive castle. Instead of being inconveniences, the differences between castles can become points of interest. We may marvel at how much other castles seem to differ from our own, and from each other. We may find that when we are in a certain mood we prefer one castle and not another, that our different moods (or modes) seem to draw us towards different castles. Above all, we are able to appreciate this difference between castles, and our journeys and visits give us occasion to celebrate it.

In the monotheistic mode multiplicity may have a tendency to become a nuisance. If our way is the right way, then theirs musn't be. Likewise, if theirs is the right way, then we must be in the wrong. By defining a "right" path, monotheism also creates a "wrong" path, and when we see the world through its lense we may be tempted to categorise what we see in terms of this opposition, amongst others. But slip into the polytheistic mode of thought and we suddenly become open to the multiplicity of possible positions, realising that one may be no more "true" than another.

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Remembering the Balance

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Society is, at best, a system that manages to combine many disparate elements whilst maintaining some sort of balance between them. If this balance was not maintained then the system would degenerate in one way or another, before either finding a new balance, or collapsing. In this sense, we can see society as an eco-system, much like the kind that we would find in a forest. Balance between its various elements is key, not only to the survival of the system, but to the survival of the individuals within the system.

Now, let's imagine that within our forest there is a badger that has somehow managed to get it into its head that to be a badger is the "right" way to be, and that all other forms of existence are inferior and irrelevant compared to his. Not only does our badger have a monotheistic view, but he also has a rather militant spirit and has somehow acquired destructive technology and the know-how to use it. Suffice it to say, the fragile balance of his forest will not last long. Perhaps what our badger doesn't realise is that without his environment to sustain him, he will soon be a goner too (or perhaps he is a nihilist to boot).

Of course, destruction may not be the only way our badger may go about his path of domination. If he can't abide the thought of killing, he may instead choose to convert all those around him to his position. Suddenly the palette of the forest become dominated by two non-colours, as everything is painted in black and white. Hole digging and meat-eating likewise become the norm. In no time our badger has managed to implement a forest-wide monoculture, saving himself the bother of investing in all that expensive weaponry.

Our badger has made the mistake of taking his "badgerness" literally. His belief in the correctness of his own position has blinded him to the fact that he lives within a balanced system, one that requires its multiplicity - the difference between its elements - for its survival. He is short-sighted, unable to understand things beyond the four walls of his castle, the confines of his position. When he looks out of his windows he sees only confusion, and deviation.

His confusion is, perhaps, understandable. He has become so accustomed to the look and feel of his castle that all others naturally appear foreign and deviant. He has forgotten the truth of his castle: that it hasn't always been around, that it was built brick by brick. Perhaps he built it, or perhaps someone else did, but it was built.

To avoid confusion, let's leave our badger in his castle and return to the human world. Within a forest we are talking about the differences between species, whereas within a human society we are talking about the differences between people. The badger is confined to his castle, his position as "badger" - he has no choice but to take his position literally. He would probably find it very difficult to start flying if commanded to do so by a domineering bird. As humans we have freedoms that the badger does not; we can imagine other ways of being, and we can, within limits, move between them. So whilst the badger may be confined to his four walls, the same is not, strictly speaking, true of us.

Much of the time we may forget that we also live within a balanced eco-system. To truly believe in the sovereignty of one position over another is to overlook this balance. It is a belief founded on a confused epistemology. For example, in the popular Western consciousness, certain values often appear to be held in higher esteem than others. Our consciousness is entrenched in a rationalist perspective; we see the value in things like science and commerce because their projects appear to make sense: in other words, the logic that underpins them is easy to identify. Science cures diseases, and gives us new technology - it answers questions, and solves problems. Commerce makes the world go round. Things like art and religion seem to make less sense; they often raise more questions than answers, and any answers they do provide are generally not certifiable by "scientific" standards. Their logic is, from the rationalist perspective, obscure and confusing.

If we are too entrenched in our position, and if that position has at its roots these rationalist ideas and values, then we are bound to overlook the necessity of things like art and religion to the balance of the system. We may not believe that we need these things at all, that they are an aberrance, and we may wish that they did not exist. If we were able to act on this belief, and if we had the means to eradicate these ideas, then we would be making the same mistake as our badger; from a simple lack of insight into the wider balance of the system, we would be tipping it into a potentially disastrous imbalance.


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Battles and Challenges

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It is our contention that within a monotheistic framework we are more tempted to preserve the sanctity of our position - to arm the battlements - when faced with the position of the Other. Another castle represents a threat to our own, and more often than not a battle ensues. Battles are a form of game-playing: if our interest lies solely in preserving our position, then we will play to win and nothing more. A battle is a very specific and narrowed form of communication; its main messages are, "I am right and you are wrong" and "I will show you that you are wrong". It is not a place for indecision, vulnerability or doubt - and if we decide that these things are requisites for a constructive dialogue then we cannot see a battle as "constructive."

Yet, a battle, like a game, can also be enjoyable. It structures time, gives us something to do, and can be exciting. It allows us to exercise certain aspects of our being, to flex and thrust. But we would be mistaken in thinking that we are engaging in anything other than the reification of our own position. Once arms are laid down - the pose seen through - a more nuanced form of communication can begin.

A polytheistic outlook allows us the room to be more amenable to foreign words and deeds. Of the two, the polytheistic view appears the wiser, but, because it can lead to relativism, it must also go hand in hand with a willingness to have our own position challenged. It can become all too easy to use a position to dismiss the thoughts and actions of others - "Of course he would say that, because of who he is (but I needn't take heed, because my position is different.)" - and so we become immune to the challenge that is posed by 'otherness'. In avoiding conflict like this, we would again be making a mistake similar to that of our badger earlier on, an error based upon a limited view of the ecosystem. We would be overlooking the possibility that contact (in its varying forms; conflict, negotiation, exploration) is a necessary and healthy occurrence. In avoiding conflict entirely we have essentially tipped the balance in the opposite direction; where formerly our badger sought to assert the sovereignty of his position through the annihilation of all other positions - through sameness - he would here be asserting his sovereignty through relativism, through difference. Both paths have in common the refusal to have his own position challenged.

The battle, then, becomes the refusal to be challenged, and the challenge can only take place when the battle ends.

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Common Ground

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A wise man once said, "those who are awake have one world in common, those who are asleep live each in a private world."2 Perhaps this one world, this common ground, is that area outside of our castles; and when we are able to step out of our front door - to leave our position behind - we become truly "awake." Awake in this sense would mean untangled from self-interest, from the concerns that go along with living in a castle. After all, a castle can often be self-perpetuating; it provides comfort, a place to live - but if we are to continue living within it then we must maintain it, and, when necessary, we must defend it. To step outside of the castle is to put its demands in perspective, to see that looking after our castle may not be the be-all and end-all. Thus, in many ways, to enter the common ground is to become liberated.

With this in mind, when we are faced with the behaviour of others we can ask; does this behaviour come from within a position, or does it come from without - are they still standing in their castle, or are they in common ground? In short, is their behaviour entrenched or transcendent? Because to understand where behaviour comes from, is to be able to form a more nuanced approach towards it.

We've seen that we all have our positions, our castles within which we exist. We've examined the ideas of monotheism and polytheism and how these outlooks can affect the way we see others' positions as well as our own. We've seen that understanding a person's position can make us more amenable to their 'otherness', but we've also seen the importance of having our own position challenged. Having seen these castles, our own and those of others - and having seen the distance between them - we must be willing to leave our structures for a while, and to take a trip. We must be willing to knock on some doors, and to ask to come in.

In the last, it may be that no-one has a sovereign position, that no-one is so enlightened so as to see the full workings of our ecosystem. The monotheistic view may make us believe that this view does exist, but it leaves us in no doubt that there is only one who is able to see this way: God. With its pantheon of gods, polytheism blows this model apart, allowing us to structure our thought in a different way; one that may be more in line with a world that has at its heart no certainties, and no definitive positions.

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1 Games People Play, p.42
2 Heraclitus, as paraphrased by John Fowles in The Aristos, p.216

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In fact, how can we let ourselves be moved to pity unless by transporting ourselves outside ourselves and identifying ourselves with the suffering animal, by quitting, so to speak, our own being in order to assume his?

The commiseration will be the more energetic, the more intimately the spectator identifies himself with the sufferer [...] It is therefore quite certain that compassion is a natural feeling which moderates in every individual his self-esteem, and contributes to the mutual preservation of the entire race.

[Jean-Jacques Rousseau]
Émile, p.115-20
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, p. 92, 94


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My announcement at the end of September that Click Opera would end in February elicited some interesting reactions. The bit that seemed to spark the most empathy with Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher was my anti-dialectical, anti-democratic point (if by dialectics and democracy we mean OMG WTF Web 2.0 ghost-sparring) that "Click Opera has been a sort of karate course, and its comment facility has taught me to be more dialectical and -- above all -- the skill set of prolepsis, of anticipating reader objections.

But is a more moderate, accessible and dialectical me really what the world needs? Doesn't the world need an immoderate, outrageous and concentrated me, just laying out things that only I could think, no matter how wrong they may be?"

Simon Reynolds on his Blissblog responded: "Yeah I agree prolepsis sucks, it seems to have taken a lot of the categorical oomph and thrust out of writing, unless you're just utterly bullheaded you will inevitably find yourself riddling what you do with qualification and nuancing... Strangely, prolepsis rarely seems to afflict comments boxers... but i guess they can shelter under aliases or "anonymous," they don't have to own their utterances in the same way."

Mark Fisher makes a similar point on his K-Punk blog: "For me, the answer is clear - I certainly don't want writers who "respond to criticisms", who patiently deal with "feedback", no matter how hostile and uncomprehending. I want writers who have the courage to pursue their own lines. What's interesting, I suppose, is the libidinal impulses at work in those who don't want that - who would rather have a writer spending their time on discussion boards and in comments boxes defending themselves, nuancing their position into innocuous irrelevance, or effectively abandoning it altogether in the name of some vacuous commitment to "debate".

[Momus]
'Tactics, not skirmishes'


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Related posts:-
Escaping Uncertainty
Do Not Disturb
Rules of Engagement
Being open to the new 
This, Not That 
[Anonymous]
The Eternal Ideas
You ought to be more like me 
Walk a Straight Line 

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