“One doesn’t always have to formalize: Nietzsche thought that if God existed, the I is impossible. That may be very convincing, if A commands B, B no longer is autonomous, doesn’t have subjectivity anymore, but when in the course of thinking, you don’t stay in the formal, when you think from the contents, a situation called heteronomy has a totally different meaning.” (own translation), E. Levinas, Entre Nous, Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1991, p.121.
I’ve been blogging on and off on this site called heteronomy. Truth be told I have never in that long time really though about the meaning of that word. Until recently that is, when I read Kant’s “Foundations of metaphysics of morals” and discovered the passage about autonomy and heteronomy. It made me think. There’s something appealing to autonomy; one would not want to do the good thing because there’s an external motivation to do it. Still, something is missing there. The misery of our own period of history has a lot do to with autonomy gone wild. It literally takes the Enlightenment to anti-humanist extremes. As a once avid reader of Kierkegaard I can but wonder whether the either/or isn’t in fact inescapable and whether I don’t have to switch over to the religious side after all. I seem to share all of the values although I’m fundamentally abhorred by the heteronomous part; obedience is not my thing, let alone the blind variant.
I am, like many, looking for a long time to avoid being caught on the horns of the either and the or. There has to be a way to derive a positive morality without relying on anything properly religious. It was no coincidence that I decided to read some more Levinas. It was a surprise though to find the above quote. It sums up the promise of another kind of heteronomy, one not based on higher powers but one based on everyday interaction with others. That surprise triggered this post.
I think Levinas has it more or less right. The problem is that I’m looking for something that is exactly right. I’m after all an analytical person close to analytic philosophy. Now – like in this excellent piece (by Martin Shuster) – there is a lot of activity trying to bridge the gaps between the two philosophical traditions, that’s still not exact enough for me. What I want is to derive Levinas’ anomalous heteronomy from the basic facts of language and – more specifically – from Davidson’s principle of charity.
This is what I have (and, pretty please, do help me along):
Remember those awkward days when your every move was dependent on being independent. Your laundry was done for you, dinner was still served and your presence at it was a sacrifice to the elders. You are ashamed now about the future you predicted for your self and that of others. You should be. It was naïve and self-centered on wishing ill on others. You had as little room for others in your heart as there was for yourself in your room.
I’m talking about the years 2015-2016. Years of stupidity that are by now mostly forgotten. Ape years paling in comparison to the big fires scarring the century before. Religion was a hot item again. Can you imagine? God was long pronounced dead. The notion of humanity was born long before His epitaph was written. But here we were: each boxed in their own room of right, sulking about the unfairness of it all.
In the end, it was all about being independent.
It’s odd to talk about progress these days when everything seems backwards. We are given every reason to become pessimists and end up like Stefan Zweig. That these reasons are given by cultural pessimists might push us to withstand only because we want to deny them that victory too. Revenge, however, is their way so whatever victory that kind of resistance would lead to would not be really ours.
There is, then, no other option then to find a basis for our optimism in reason.
“(..) the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts.” G.H. Mead, “Mind, Self & Society”, 1934, The University of Chicago Press, p. 7.
Society is the soil and the individuals are the flowers. The flowers are not there just to fertilize the soil but the soil isn’t something we can leave unfertilized either. Staying on-metaphor: language is the fertilizer. It’s allowing the soil to bring forth better flowers but takes, without coercion, from those flowers to make for an even better soil.
Nothing can be further removed from current opinion. If only because it is dynamic – and this world of now hates anything that is elusive; anything that can’t be decomposed in parts and reassembled in the whole we (think we) need. We live in anti-Darwinian times where we think we can make leaps without evolving.
But aren’t our cultural pessimists the ‘owners’ of the primacy of the whole (society)?
It is crucial, or so we are told, that we undertake things. In English, such undertaking can earn you the title of entrepreneur. It’s such a tongue-twistingly ugly word that it’s reserved for the successful few. Anybody can be an undertaker, but entrepreneurs, real entrepreneurs, are few and far between. It’s, by the way, characteristic of ugly nouns for ugly elite concepts to attract ‘real’ as adjective and contaminate it with the need for italicization. I confess I’m annoyed with the concept (which says little because I equally confess that I’m annoyed at being annoyed).
In my native Dutch language, the noun corresponding to ‘to undertake’ is not taken by the specific undertaking which is to take dead people to their underground destination. So we’re all supposed to undertake, ondernemen, and become true undertakers, ondernemers (for ‘true’, see ‘real’ above). As is adequately demonstrated by the time it takes me to come to the point, I ain’t no undertaker. Oddly enough this is also supported by the fact that the only corpse I plan to be associated with is my own whilst – in proverbial Dutch and The Apprentice – entrepreneurs have to handle corpses with the same ease as undertakers do.
Which brings me to why I’m no undertaker. Continue reading
I confess that against my (and the doctor’s) better judgment, I went out for work yesterday. The result was that I achieved nothing significant and extended my illness over the week-end. So now I am alone and, for the first time in many months, writing to the few who happen to wander into this page.
Hello! You’re not the only ones to feel fucked over by the present life!
I confess making that remark mainly to get your attention. Not that I particularly want it, but it seems to be the honest thing to do. I at least have to try to get your attention. I’m not in fact fucked over. Far from it. It often feels that way just because I’m unable to cope with the absence of real bad luck in my life.
Let’s just all confess to it: we try too much. The drive for success is like a butt plug making us feel uneasy all of the time. Not that I know how a butt plug feels like; as I told you, I’m not in fact fucked over. Still, there’s an anal metaphor here. Society drills us to want to pick up the soap and the only break-through that is ever achieved that way … I’ll definitely say more. Continue reading
My wife dislikes … Kind of implies there’s more … Specifically more to do … Needing to guess what’s that … About.
I have been reading Juan Goytisolo’s Don Juliàn. He looks ferocious. The book is. It’s hard not to think this … Open, I guess. Open to the front, closed to the back. I don’t know. Just guessing. Writing words. I’ll need to get back at it. Find the thread. Use the needle. Knit a sock.
Gass brought me to Goytisolo. After Don Quixote it is the first book in Spanish I want to finish. It’s a break from Finnegans Wake as well. Halfway through it, it kind of lost me (after the Russian revolution if I recall well). I’ll get back to it. I consider it a …
altivo, gerifalte Poeta, ayùdame : a luz màs cierta, sùbeme : la patria no es la tierra, el hombre no es el àrbol : ayùdame a vivir sin suelo y sin raìces : móvil, móvil : sin otro alimento y sustancia que tu rica palabra : palabra sin historia, orden verbal autónomo, engañoso delirio : poema
Juan Goytisolo, Don Juliàn, p. 118
This bloody keyboard doesn’t even let me put the accents in the right direction! Never mind. Let us stay a bit positive in this world which is fixed to its past and therefore closed to its future. Continue reading
If there’s an -ist that applies to me it’s pensivist. Maybe I should go cold turkey on thinking. I confess that the strategy of doing it moderately doesn’t feel like the winning strategy. And what is a strategy if it is not winning. Isn’t it all about winning? It is. It is. It is. Therefore I am. Whether I like it or not. Nobody asked me. Except myself. Precisely nobody, that is.
I’m reading Finnegans Wake. I confess to ambivalence about it. It’s great but makes me feel little. What is the point?, is that the point? It is a snake; it is; it is; it is. But I was bitten long before. Now I’m just rattled. Ha. The beauty of it is: it is self-contained. I read it without trying to understand.
But let me think about the eternal recurrence of the eternal recurrence. I hate it but confess to loving those who seem to love it, or, at least, who love those who love those who seem to love it. The thing is that those who seem to love it are those who break the cycle and, methinks, Finnegans Wake breaks the cycle.
I confess I feel somewhat different. I further confess that I am different from people who are really different in not being really – perceptibly – different. If I would do my life over, I would not be be bothered to do anything different except what I will do from now onwards. What I did was all fine; what I’m going to do just doesn’t cut it. I confess I’ll continue to live in the future where I know the right thing to do is to live in the past.
What I’m going to do is to think about writing a treatise on the word ‘that’. What I’m not going to do is just that. I confess that I admire this thing called language. Mainly because it isn’t anyone’s to call ‘That’s mine!’ (or ‘ours’ for that matter because ‘ours’ is the chicken shit way of saying ‘mine’).
Language starts with ‘that’. That’s what I think at least and I confess I’d like to convince you of it.
I’m jealous. So jealous I’m too ashamed to write out all my a’s. Who needs a’s anyway when you’re feeling a straight b? Flat, no capitals. Jealous of Gass, jealous of not letting the bile get out. I self-labeled myself the eternal cultural optimist and one must live up to one’s label nowadays or find no place in society’s shelves; shelf or be shelved, although that sounds better than it means. Such is the story of my life that I have self-censored what probably is my only real aptitude in it: a mild inclination to sarcasm, well-founded in an all-out hatred for ‘the way things are’. I am a self-made man in being the bottle for my own bile – only releasing some of its steam at moments of social stress such as dinner parties or occasions where I’m forced to listen (to dumb people, I wanted to add but one only ever listens to dumb people because only dumb people have a tendency to speak on public occasions).
So, as a matter of self-preservation, I need to find a way to reconcile both bile and optimism, so as to avoid bliss-less eternity too. Here goes the argument. Its form is to neutralize -1 and +1 to leave just N.
It’s not my place, this place. But I feel responsible somehow, as I always do. It seems it came to an end. So I think a tribute needs to top this page. I could talk about the splendid people who contributed here. The fact of the matter is, I don’t know any of them. From 2 or 3 I know approximately where they live and what they do. That’s it and that it is part of the heteronomous wonder of this place.
Instead let me talk about myself. I am a lucky bastard with the inborn capacity to feel out of luck. I am like most lucky bastards, that is. Things came easy to me, mainly because I settled for what comes easy. Kind of at least. Is that a crime? Just because it feels like one? Because the received opinion is that worthwhile is in association with making a tremendous effort? With pain and trembling?