Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Enlightenment Ambivalence

It was a little bit odd for two people whose tastes in philosophy are such that they find abhorrent anything hinting at, let alone reeking of, valorizations of “the Temple of Reason” or “the sublime” or “the beauty of Law” would wish to begin a blog under a banner of “Enlightenment.” We’re both Nietzscheans, (or part of the legacy of Nietzsche’s French Legacy) for crissakes! It has never been at all clear why we would wish to frame our blog discussion and collaboration in terms of “the Enlightenment,” and so it has often seemed to me as if our return to an “Enlightenment” framework was an act of cowering, a failure of the nerves, or even perhaps some sort of conservative reaction (in the bad sense of the word,) to the shock of the conservatism (and liberalism) of our time going further insane than they already had been.

It was fine for Foucault to declare that one must not allow oneself to be emotionally blackmailed into being either “for” or “against” the Enlightenment; yet does not the very word “Enlightenment” not contain within itself its own “being for itself” which makes it impossible to invoke the Enlightenment in some positive sense without declaring oneself, without saying a word, “for” the Enlightenment. And does the Enlightenment not retain some elitist connotation which makes taking up the theme of “Enlightenment” become itself an elitist activity? These things have also bothered me. Even if we have attempted to efface these aspects of the “Enlightenment” theme, isn’t it now obvious that we really cannot do so? Marching under a banner of “Enlightenment,” we must suffer some identification with the reactionary, the ethnocentric, and the elitist. Bummer.

I have tried to find some element or elements within the “Enlightenment” tradition which I can affirm, which I can possibly take up and modify and make work and function for and within the desiring machines or agencements or concepts I wish to plug into or create. I have been content to choose something called “autonomy” as the element I will focus upon and which will answer for me the question of what is Enlightenment in the present, as part of what we are in the present. However, I wonder whether, simply by using this old word, I am unwittingly making commitments I would wittingly not wish to make. Am I, in wanting a constitution of the self as autonomous subject, inadvertently asking and planning an intensification of the isolation, atomization, and narcissism which seem to be part of the consequences of “autonomy”, at least insofar as autonomy was projected by the “Enlightenment” thinkers?

And yet…

I won’t let any discomfort get to me. I will not be dissuaded. I think I can remain a “Nietzschean” and continue to work within this “ Enlightenment Underground” framework which Dr. Spinoza has devised. I find that a Nietzschean DOES have a way of looking at a “ Temple of Reason” without revulsion. While I will be unable to hold to the doctrines of “ rationalism” as these are portrayed and understood by the Enlightenment thinkers, it is important to note what I want to do isn’t to be taken as irrationalism. While the concept of “autonomy” I am trying to pick up and use was shaped by the Enlightenment thinkers, “autonomy” as it will be repeated here will be something different.

14 Comments:

Anonymous James R. Martin said...

"However, I wonder whether, simply by using this old word, I am unwittingly making commitments I would wittingly not wish to make. Am I, in wanting a constitution of the self as autonomous subject, inadvertently asking and planning an intensification of the isolation, atomization, and narcissism which seem to be part of the consequences of “autonomy”, at least insofar as autonomy was projected by the “Enlightenment” thinkers?"'

Excellent question, well understood!

The question can be asked in this way, as well.:

In what valid sense may an individual human being be conceived as having, or potentially having (exhibiting) autonomy?

My own answer is that whatever autonomy a human being may have must be as a result of responsiveness, which I contrast, here, with reactiveness. An autonomous individual is able to respond within a world of others in which she is inevitably embedded, and which defines her self in the first place--since selves emerge in the context of relations, including the relation of self with other selves. (But please don't take me in a Hegelian light, here.)

How, then, is a reaction different from a response? Reactions are generally habitual, knee-jerk, and usually adopted from others uncritically -- often or usually without awareness of the adoption. Responses are more responsive, and exhibit whatever freedom we may legitimatly be said to have--which clearly involves a capacity to "reflect".

But now is the time to reflect.

Our inheritance provides our "thought" with distinctions which most of us treat as dichotomous, or incompatible, or as "opposing forces".: e.g., "free will and determinism"; Individualism vs. collectivism, etc. These "structure" -- we may think-- our available notions of "autonomy" and whatever its antonyms are supposed to be.

To whatever extent thought plays a role in our advancement of personal autonomy, our thought must discover new ways of understanding and configuring -- conceiving -- our freedom. I say this because the old dichotomies are traps! Freedom is in no way opposed to responsiveness: Responsiveness is freedom. The only freedom of which I am aware. And freedom responds to others.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

While I am happy to "see" you, JRM, and appreciate the warmth and wit of your words, I wonder if you are as concerned about renewing the negative dynamic between us as I am. If I respond to this, I don't see how we will prevent ourselves from being " off to the races" ( the tailchase races,) all over again. For example, if you say, " freedom is in no way opposed to responsiveness," it makes me wonder: a jailer who locks another up in a cell and throws away the key is certainly RESPONDING to something, is certainly thereby RESPONSIVE, and yet, here is an example of a responsiveness opposed to freedom -- and remember, I only need one such example to refute what you have written, above.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous JRM said...

"While I am happy to "see" you, JRM, and appreciate the warmth and wit of your words, I wonder if you are as concerned about renewing the negative dynamic between us as I am."

I can let something new enter this dynamic. I believe you can, as well.

" .... For example, if you say, "freedom is in no way opposed to responsiveness," it makes me wonder: a jailer who locks another up in a cell and throws away the key is certainly RESPONDING to something, is certainly thereby RESPONSIVE, and yet, here is an example of a responsiveness opposed to freedom -- and remember, I only need one such example to refute what you have written, above."

I don't think you really believe that. If I had said, "Cats have tails", would you go looking for a cat which had its tail amputated? But this is already complicated by taking what I meant and placing it in a context of generalities vs particulars; I don't think I meant to evoke this frame. One can almost always find exeptions to generalities; and my above post was meant to open into a discussion. Maybe I'm wrong about what I said about reactions, responses, freedom.

But maybe I am right. And if I don't *react* to you--or am less reactive--, but respond, instead, I keep our opportunity alive. One way to respond is to see the freshness in every moment. I don't have to carry the weight of yesterday's baggage. In this way I am free.

I do believe in choice. I believe we really do make choices.

I'm genuinely interested in the questions of yours which I quoted, above. I'm interested in how your questions may fit together with other, related questions. Many people think if themselves as "determinists," and since they are determinists, well, there can be no freedom. Autonomy is a sort of freedom, no?

I know that when I'm bieng "reactive" I'm in some sense unfree. I'm being bounced around by the past, emotional baggage, acquired habits which I given in to and "act out".... So I won't find freedom in this sort of "unreflective" acting out of habit.

As I said, I believe in choice--that we can make choices and that the future isn't determined by the past. So in every moment where I may habitually perform a knee-jerk reaction without reflection, I can see this as an opportunity--, like a flashing light saying "Hey, wait a minute, you're just reacting and now's an opportunity to reflect," to make thoughtful and intelligent choices.

The hypothetical jailor you mention? I don't know him. Don't know his situation at all. Maybe he's utterly reactive? Maybe he's making reflective decisions? Who knows?

But the concept of autonomy you're interrogating... It does intersect with the notion of personal freedom, no?

2:31 PM  
Anonymous JRM said...

~ Addendum ~

It seems that perhaps certain "Enlightenment" notions of autonomy conceived the self as rather like the notion of an atom prior to the discovery of the complex atom. In ancient Greece, an atom was "the indivisible". Now the atom is buzzing inside and out, and is -- apparently -- all process and relation, energy in motion.

Anyhow, it seems that a popular (or common) sense of self, or conception of the self, during the Enlightenment (or growing out of the Enlightenment) was of the "isolation, atomization, and narcissism" sort. This relates to the notion of the "rugged individualist" and "the self-made man".

One thought I've been exporing is that the whole individualism vs collectivism embroglio is a confused heap from which there is no escape; so the best thing to do is to begin elsewhere, but perhaps nearby. One can use the individualism vs collectivism embroglio to discover a nearby, from which to re-engage the now reframed questions.

A nearby I like to explore is the thought that individuals aren't at all like the atomos ("uncuttable") of Democritus. We're not indivisible wholes. We're not wholly independent; we "emerge" with others--human, animal, mineral.... I like to think of self in "process-relational" terms.

Both individualism and collectivism have their pathological and pathogenic variants. Both individualistic societies and collectivist ones can be oppressive to the individual. Either sort of society can be organized around either a "process-relational" sense of self or around an "atomistic" one. But my money is with the society in which a process-relational sense of self predominates, if what is to be valued in a society is freedom and happiness/well being.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I doubt that this point is worth arguing, but if you said: "Cats have tails", I would not go looking for a cat which had its tail amputated because in saying "cats have tails" you could mean either " some cats have tails," or " all cats have tails." I would want your clarification as to which you'd meant before I did anything further.

But you see when you said, "Freedom is in no way opposed to responsiveness," you are making an "all cats have tails" sort of claim, and it is meaningless and incoherent for you to follow that by saying as a way of explaining your thinking, "One can almost always find exceptions to generalities," ( which is kind of funny, because it can mean virtually anything,)if you take what you write as anything but a dribbling of electronic muck into cyberspace, wouldn't it be better if you stopped relying on statements such as "Freedom is in no way opposed to responsiveness"? You could say that there is some relationship between what we call "freedom" and limitations placed on or taken away from ability to respond, and that could be a very interesting and illuminating avenue for exploration.

3:29 PM  
Anonymous JRM said...

... if you take what you write as anything but a dribbling of electronic muck into cyberspace, wouldn't it be better if you stopped relying on statements such as 'Freedom is in no way opposed to responsiveness'?"

I think it was clear from the context of what I had written that I was wanting to indicate that there is a way of understanding freedom which involves the contrast of "reaction" and "response".

Do you wish for people who contribute to conversation here to spend days considering each and every word and sentence, as if one were writer, editor, and publisher of a technical journal? Okay, so I could have been more careful to avoid being misunderstood. You win. And with "You win" you have doubly won, since, clearly, it is a reaction to your "dribbling of electronic muck into cyberspace", and proof of your fear, stated above.:
"I wonder if you are as concerned about renewing the negative dynamic between us as I am."

Conversations, I have thought, allow for some misstatements, some errors -- and lean toward mutual understanding. "By such-and-such, did you mean to say that...?" That sort of thing. I didn't realize that the bar was set so high here. Perhaps I don't have time for the level of care required.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I do think that conversations need to lean toward mutual understanding. I also think I have a tendency to pick on the weaker parts of what you are saying, and that this is a mistake on my part.

I hope this feedback will be useful to you: I didn't find it at all clear from the context of what you'd written ( at first ) that there is a way of understanding freedom which involves a contrast of "reaction" and "response."

5:08 PM  
Anonymous James said...

Okay, well we have the whole future of the conversation before us, then. Can we begin, here, in the middle?

There appear to be various images of autonomy (and of freedom) swirling round in the world.

Honestly, I don't know either (a) whether I want to grab ahold of or create such an image (b) contest any of these images while offering no image....

What I did think to do was to say, Well, if I explore the concept of autonomy... When I explore the word autonomy, I want to say something about reaction and response.

Many people use 'reaction' and 'response' interchangably, but I do not. Its an idiosyncracy of mine to use these words distinctively.

It was my freedom I spoke of and not of some general theme. I should have said so. When I am reactive, I *feel* myself unfree. I believe myself unfree -- lacking autonomy.
The converse is also true, when I am "responsive," I experience freedom/autonomy -- May we use these as synonyms?

The hypothetical jailor never occurred to me because I was initially framing my inquiry in the sense of the hypothetical individual's (and my own, non-hypothetical) capcity for responsiveness or reaction.

But the hypothetical jailor inquiry is a good one. There is a long tradition of inquiry into social freedom, political freedom, and so on. I didn't mean to be dismissive of that. Its just that I began with this hypothetical individual -- what would it mean for her/him to have autonomy, to be free, if his social freedom isn't restricted in gross and obvious ways?--as in being thrown in jail.

Of course, social/political freedom and this other sort of freedom (what to call it?) are intertwined in numerous ways. To pry them apart is to play at hypotheticals. I'd like to do that as sensitively as possible -- but I'm letting these words spill rough-and-tumble. We can sort things out. We're just opening into an inquiry and feeling for its shape, no?

********************************

In another forum recently, someone asked me if what I was saying there committed me to a "centered subject", or some such thing... perhaps a "Cartesian" sense of self.

I've only skimmed some of the surfaces of all of the talk of "multiplicities", "differance", all of that. I mention this because to discuss the autonomy of individuals, selves, or whatever we wish to call us, will at some time beg the question, What sort of self/ego/animal body/whatever, are we concerned with in this question about autonomy/freedom?

If such a self/animal body/whatever is determined from the Big Bang onward, or through his/her social conditioning, language, etc., then there seems little room for conceiving a place for autonomy in all of this automatic thrust and programming, no? (Never mind the question of herm being jailed.)

And all of this raised the whole existentialist question about "authenticity". In what sense can a person be inauthentic?

But a problem I face is that I cannot borrow more than a little from the various traditions -- e.g., existentialism, phenomenology, Transcendentalism, Beat poets, Kant, Hegal, Dewey, Deleuze, etc. And I haven't sorted out any sort of picture/image of all of that.

All I can do is respond (at best) to the presence of these images of self or autonomy/freedom which abound. If you ask me, well I think that as recently as the last few decades, in America (USA), some older and familiar-to-others notion of freedom/autonomy has pretty much crumbled in terms of people's use and faith in it. It involved the political/social dimention very much--and "selves" were built in its orbit. A dialectic of some sort was going on, and I think it has largely broken, and people are looking hollow and vague, uncertian. Something which was there has fallen away, and nothing has replaced it.

I heard third hand about a radio interview in which some scholar or theoretician described young college and university students of the moment (again, in the USA) as having little or no "warmth" toward others.

People often don't even bother to look whether a pedestrian is in a cross walk before turning. They are looking only for cars, in the opposite direction. It never occurs to them to think of pedestrians, or much of anything else that isn't coded in the way of cell phones, Starbucks espresso drinks.... Major parts of the texture of a life even I once knew have, in decades merely, fallen away. We may be even more perverse now than we were in the '80s. But now and then a little human warmth. Just enough.

What happens when all of the centers collapse? Forgive me if I ramble like the flashing images on MTV, but already a world -- and it isn't all that personal -- that I knew something of has passed. When political social hope collapsed, so did a center. There was a center and the center could not hold.

It broke.

The media/journalism collapsed. Faith based initiatives rose, such as faith based wars and faith based lick your finger which direction the wind is blowing for war in Iraq, whatever. I mean, the standards? How can you have social hope or faith -- and without that, what is left of our good old time familiar "freedom"? Has it atomized?

Are we self-imploding?

6:01 PM  
Anonymous JRM said...

“Why don't people direct their efforts and desire toward the constitution of a self as an autonomous subject, but choose instead one that is non-autonomous?”

~ from blog post of February 21, 2007 –"Revisiting Some Abandoned Questions"

"2. having autonomy; not subject to control from outside; independent: a subsidiary that functioned as an autonomous unit."

~ American Heritage Dictionary

To effectively explore the question quoted at the top of this post, I need to know why the asker is asking this question in the first place. That is, I need to understand in which particular ways the asker of the question suspects that people don't direct their efforts and desire toward the constitution of a self as an autonomous subject, but choose instead one that is non-autonomous?”

It would also be helpful to have some understanding of what the questioner means by "autonomy", or "self as an autonomous subject". My imagination can take these questions in a thousand directions, and I'm not clear about what is being asked.

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

Thanks for asking for clarification. In the question you have quoted above, I was attempting to revise the way we asked one of the first questions posed for discussion by Spindroza in this blog: why people desire their own repression. Following his asking of this question, Spindroza announced that he wanted to find out if it was possible to ask this question responsibly, and if so, how that was to be done. Part of asking this question responsibly involves actually determining if it is indeed the case that people do desire their own repression. This seems to be in part what you want to know vis a vis my rephrasing of the question in terms of autonomy- if it is true that people direct their efforts against their own autonomy- and I think you have every right to press me hard on this: I am ashamed at the way we've ( or I,Spindroza is absent most of the time,) putzed around with this without putting the matter to bed one way or the other.

Lately I have been going back over all of the issues raised but never settled early in the blog's history -- that have troubled me since the inception of the blog. I have planned to in the next day or week or so give my own answer to exactly what you've asked... I am going to say why and in what ways people can be said to not be directing their effort and desire toward the constitution of a self as an autonomous subject... and I will be hoping to find out from you and others whether my determination in this matter is responsible or irresponsible.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous JRM said...

~ obtect pupa ~


ASABIYAH

"Perhaps Ibn Khaldun, the medieval Muslim scholar, can give us a hint. Ibn Khaldun spoke of asabiyah or social cohesion, as binding groups together through a common language, culture, and code of behavior. Asabiyah is what traditional societies possess, but which is broken down in urbanized society over a period of time. ...." [ http://virtual.yosemite.cc.ca.us/smithaj/asabiyah.htm ]

I Googled your last name, Mr. Asabiyah.

Maybe we should have a name for societies lacking asabiyah. How about we call them hayibasa? Maybe our question at hand relates to this matter of asabiyah and hayibasa? Let's see.... I think the contemporary scene in the USA-America exhibits islands of asabiyah and hayibasa here and there. I'm more familiar with the USA than with its beyond, so I'll address this portion of the so-called "fist world"--the heart of empire.

One of my above posts, I think, hit upon the whole asabiyah and hayibasa matter. America used to be held together with the glue of democracy as a quasi-religious "creed". Walt Whitman sang about it. Much later, Alan Ginsberg Howled about it. Whatever we're singing about or howling about now isn't what either of these fellows sung and howled about. Perhaps we have too much of what isn't good in asabiyah and hayibasa, and not enough of the good aspects of each? In any case, there is no feeling of movement. We're not moving on. We're sticks in the mud. There's not triumphant and dangerous civil rights movement, no push, no heave, no heavy lifting. Democracy was supposed to be freedom, was supposed in some way to offer a sort of "autonomy", or its opportunity, its context. But we're neither singing nor howling. There is no freedom train rolling, ringing out songs between our brothers and our sisters, no boxcars boxcars boxcars -- little poetry. Instead we have Wal-Mart and Starbucks from sea to shining sea. Impersonal personalism for sale, made to order: one size fits all; hold the mayo, "you can have it your way".

We fear or have no time for asabiyah. We fear and have no time for hayibasa. What happy hybrid of the best of each could we hope for?

I want to blame television, mass media, and their collusions with Mega-Corp and government, their deliberate erasure of and war upon any emerging happy hayi-biyah, a happy hybrid. But what use would blaming tv be? Everything is now implicated in a manufacturing of consent for the unhappy hybrid, the war against the islands. Its just business; that's all. Business and government thrive on illusions. A cardboard and sawdust burger, with a little chemical splash... Who will notice? Quality is what Business pretends to us as we pretend it to Business. Business is all; it is government, is religion -- it is efficient, profitable, yada yada.

Freedom (autonomy) can only find a fissure here and there in which to live -- some sort of momentary occurance such as a "TAZ". A TAZ devil. Pan snorting ready to HOWL again, or sing again like Whitman.

But forget all of this TAZ and killing of our televisions! Who reigns now is the image, and I want to offer up no imagery. I want our poetry to come alive. Can a theory escape the gravitational pull of The Image Factory? Enlightenment's future may be to become chrysalis - obtect pupa -- for our dance, our living poetry, sans a controling image.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

What I like about the word "asabiyah" is that what it means is somewhere between "tribe" and "socialism". I'd like to see someone who really knew what they were doing translate the word. I'm wary of the translation you have cited above.

I hope you have a good weekend.

7:28 PM  
Anonymous JRM said...

Yusef:

"I have planned to in the next day or week or so give my own answer to exactly what you've asked... I am going to say why and in what ways people can be said to not be directing their effort and desire toward the constitution of a self as an autonomous subject... and I will be hoping to find out from you and others whether my determination in this matter is responsible or irresponsible."

How's that coming?

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

Jrm,

You have stated:

"Conversations,I have thought,lean toward mutual understanding."

But I wonder:

How much effort do you put into "leaning toward mutual understanding?"

Try to read what has followed this post with the spirit of " leaning toward mutual understanding."

11:15 PM  

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