Posts filed under ‘Current Events’
I’m sure everyone reading this has heard of the shocking massacre in Arizona. Now it was reported that the assailant, Jared Lee Loughner, was a bit of a Nietzsche fan. Some have concluded from this that Nietzsche’s nihilism is partly to blame for the massacre.
Like a lot of readers of Nietzsche, I have mixed feelings about him. I love to read him, but I do not fully embrace him.
On the issue of nihilism, however, I find it ironic that people often cite Nietzsche as the main proponent of nihilism, since he is one of the chief authors to write about the dangers of nihilism. He thought that we need to overcome nihilism and that a culture will self-destruct if it does not do so.
Nietzsche did not see himself as a nihilist but as someone who lived in a nihilistic culture and tried to overcome it. Personally, I think there is a lot to his analysis of the nihilism of his time.Or was the nihilism only in his head? Did he create a problem in his mind that he then tried to solve, or was he the acute observer of his culture that he strove to be?
In response to the recent Wikleaks disclosures, there was a discussion on French television entitled “The Tyranny of Transparency.” An online friend who lives in Paris translated part of the program. This is what Luc Ferry, a French philosopher said during the discussion:
“What is very interesting in this story is, and I come back to what Jacques said we are all for transparency. Who is going to be in favor of lies in a democracy? When it comes to fighting against lies, including diplomatic lies, I am delighted. But there is a big difference between legitimate transparency in a democracy, and voyeurism.”
I agree. What is disturbing in the Wikileaks affair is not so much the disclosed details—they hardly come as a surprise—but the possibility that the value of transparency might turn into a kind of tyranny in which privacy gets lost.
Ferry then pointed to Rousseau as someone who desired this kind of transparency:
“… in the letter on the arts and entertainment, Rousseau criticizes the theatre. He hated the theatre, but of course he aims this at Voltaire who loved the theatre. But, behind this criticism of the theatre, there is something very profound that touches on our subject matter. That is, Rousseau reproaches the theatre because the people in the theatre have no connection to one another except via the intermediary which is the stage. In the theater, the spectators are seated in the darkness, so they can’t see one another. They are not transparent to one another. They cannot see one another transparently like Jean-Francois and I can see one another right now. They are lodged in the darkness, they are stuck in the darkness. And the communication passes by a third intermediary separate from the individuals.”
For Rousseau, this was a metaphor for the monarchy. Said Ferry: “It’s the king that connects all the individuals, but each individual has no direct contact with other individuals except via the mediation of the king. So, Rousseau replaces the theatre with the festival. There is no stage in a festival. He said plant a pike into the ground in the town square and arrange to have music played, and the people will dance. And this [festival] is the metaphor for the democracy in opposition to the metaphor of the monarchy, so that all individuals can see each other in perfect transparency … for me, perfect transparency is horrific. Perfect transparency is a horror … maybe you can say a word about Saint-Just, as a historian, because he is all about this ghastly idea of Rousseau’s …”
While I support Ferry’s concern, we have to realize that in times of limited mass communication and even more limited education of the masses, the need for freedom of speech, bridging the gap between rulers and people, and empowering people by connecting them was much more pressing than the need for privacy. Judged in its historical context, I find Rousseau’s desire for transparency quite understandable and even praiseworthy. I doubt he would voice the same need in our digital age in which the "ethic of transparency" means that recording devises are all around you and anything you say or do might end up on the web and be seen by people on the other side of the world in a matter of minutes.
The visual media have a huge impact on the pursuit of truth. On the one hand, since I’m an artist myself, I appreciate the unprecedented visual accomplishments of our time. On the other hand, many people in our culture are getting lost deep in Plato’s cave, only seeing the constantly projected shadows on the wall without distinguishing them from reality outside the cave (see Plato’s Republic).
This is true of pretty much every area. People’s perception of science, for instance, all too often comes from sensationalistic TV shows or highly image-driven books. It is also true of how politics are conducted, how wars are fought, and how products are sold. The image is what counts, not the reality.
This is one of the less positive developments of postmodernism, and in that respect I do not see myself as postmodern. Thoughtful, word-based content and rational discourse are values worth preserving.
Since I live close to (London)derry, where the Bloody Sunday massacre took place in 1972, I was very interested in the following story. This is from CNN:
The British government Tuesday released a damning report into the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, placing blame overwhelmingly on the British soldiers on the ground in Northern Ireland that day …
Anyone not familiar with why this is so significant might want to watch the movie Bloody Sunday.
I think it’s indisputable that currently large portions of ice are melting in the Arctic. That’s a fact. But that is a separate question from what causes lie behind this fact.
Is the cause of the current melting basically the Industrial Revolution and subsequent developments in human society or is the cause the normal fluctuation in temperature that the earth has gone through over the past few million years? Ice has been melting and forming again in large quantities for a long time. The climate of the earth has been fluctuating before humans ever discovered how to make fire.
Of course the reason for the melting in the Arctic might be both: causes of human activity combined with normal fluctuations. I am not enough of an expert to be completely definite on the causes, but one thing I know, namely that it’s important to differentiate between knowing the facts and knowing the causes behind those facts. By proving a fact you don’t yet prove the cause of the fact.
Similarly with evolution. Unless one completely rejects the scientific method, one has to admit the fact that life has been on this planet for several billion years and has been evolving from simple organisms to more complex ones. However, not all causes of that fact are (yet?) known. For instance, we have no scientific proof to show how life on earth even started. And once it did start, there is much room for debate and continuing research to determine the various causes that contributed to the process of evolution. From the little I know about the scientific community, there are some fierce debates and competing theories about many of the suggested causes.
Fact and cause—two different things.
Success is a hideous thing. Its false similarity to merit deceives men. To the masses, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy. Success, that pretender to talent, has a dupe—history. Juvenal and Tacitus only reject it.
In our day, an almost official philosophy has entered into its service, wears its livery, and waits in its antechamber. Success: That is the theory. Prosperity supposes capacity. Win the lottery, and you are an able man. The victor is venerated. To be born with a caul is everything. Have luck alone and you will have the rest; be happy, and you will be thought great.
Beyond the five or six great exceptions, the wonders of their age, contemporary admiration is nothing but shortsightedness. Gilt is gold. To be a chance comer is no drawback provided you have improved your chances. The common herd is an old Narcissus, who adores himself and applauds the common. That mighty genius, by which one becomes a Moses, an Aeschylus, a Dante, a Michelangelo, or a Napoleon, the multitude attributes at one and by acclamation to whoever succeeds in his object, whatever it my be.
Let a notary rise to be deputy; let a sham Corneille write Tiridate; let a eunuch come into the possession of a harem; let a military Prudhomme accidentally win in the decisive battle of an era; let a pharmacist invent cardboard soles for army shoes and put aside, by selling this cardboard as leather for the army of the Sambre-et-Meuse, four hundred thousand livres in income; let a peddler marry usury and have her bear seven or eight million, of which he is the father and she the mother; let a preacher become a bishop by talking platitudes; let the steward of a good house become so rich that on leaving service he is made Minister of Finance—men call that Genius, just as they call the face of Mousqueton, Beauty, and the bearing of Claude, Majesty.
They confuse heaven’s radiant stars with a duck’s footprint left in the mud.
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
I watched The Secret of Kells last night and was very impressed. Too bad it didn’t win the Oscar for best animated feature.
Up was great, but in a way it was also just another Computer-generated Pixar production. In contrast, The Secret of Kells was truly unique, historically interesting, and hauntingly beautiful. A work of art.
And I’m not just saying this because I live in Ireland.
It’s Oscar night, and Avatar is a heavy contender. I watched the movie twice—mostly for the visual experience, but it also struck me as a perfect example of postmodern concerns.
In his book A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren lists ten characteristics of Modernity that the postmodern world tries to transcend. They all come through in Avatar:
1. Conquest and Control
Humans invade Pandora much like Europeans colonized the world; the age of colonization is over, and some of the damage needs to be repaired.
2. The Machine
In Modernity, the machine defined us to the extend that we essentially became machines ourselves. The “Amp Suit” in Avatar is a perfect example of this: humans becoming robots. Less mechanization and more natural living—that’s what postmodern people want.
3. Analytical Knowledge
Analytical knowledge became the dominant epistemology in Modernity, just like the humans in Avatar are analyzing and dissecting Pandora. Jake slowly discovers the value of intuition rather than mere analysis, and postmodern people wish to do the same.
4. Secular Science
Do I need to explain? The whole Avatar program is a secular science program. The Na’vi, in contrast, are a highly spiritual people. Though Postmodernists do not want to throw science overboard, they often strive to combine it with a spiritual sense.
5. Absolute Objectivity
Seen objectively, it shouldn’t be a big deal for the Na’vi to move away from their tree. There are enough trees around. Their reason for staying is a deeply subjective one, and the corporate administrator Selfridge doesn’t respect subjective reasons. To put it a different way: he is all for prose, not poetry. The postmodern world wants to re-discover poetry and respect subjectivity.
Modernity was the great age of debunking, reducing complex phenomena to a single thing: “That’s nothing but a Freudian Electra complex” or “That’s nothing but superstition.” In Avatar, the Na’vi, their values and beliefs are also “nothing but …” Jake comes to believe otherwise.
7. Modern Nation-States and Organization
From the assembly line to the picket line to the party line, Modernity has been the master of organization. Just like the human mission on Pandora, which is also highly organized. The Na’vi tribes, on the other hand, are only loosely connected, and Jake’s rallying of the tribes is only a temporary necessity. He tames the Great Leonopteryx, yes, but in the end he lets it fly, and with it, his position as supreme leader and organizer of the tribes.
The strongest individualist in Avatar is the bad guy, Colonel Miles Quaritch. In contrast, the Na’vi have a strong sense of community and unity, both among each other and with nature.
9. Institutional Religion
The Na’vi are much more religious than their invaders, but it’s not an institutional religion, just like many postmodern people wish to transcend the institutionalization of religion that marked Modernity.
Money. That’s the reason humans are on Pandora at all. Postmodern people dream of a life that is not driven primarily by consumption.
What Avatar puts in the place of Modernity might be a naive utopia—a sort of noble savage that never existed and never will exist—but it’s spot on in showing the problems of Modernity and the need for change.
In my last post, I quoted the philosopher Rick Roderick about the problem of the "non-person”. It’s a great quote, but I wonder: Is it more true or less true now than twenty years ago when Rick made this observation?
In a way, the non-person seems even more rampant today than in 1990. Our culture is more commercialized, more virtual, more pre-packaged, more conformist than ever.
On the other hand, there does seem to be a groundswell against this lack of authenticity:
- More and more people are tired of commercialized religion, cookie-cutter answers, and hypocrisy.
- More people desire real relationships rather than mere Facebook friends.
- More people want to have real food on their plates rather than mass-produced, chemically infested junk.
- More people look for real experiences rather than just watching the news.
- More people go and work out rather than doing it vicariously on their sofas by admiring Michael Jordan.
- More people like to explore nature rather than being locked up in an artificial city their whole lives.
- More people try to do their own thinking and find their own way rather than accepting the latest ten-step self-help plan of someone else.
- More people resist the reverse psycho therapy of our culture where we all sink into unconscious living rather than bringing our unconscious self to the light of consciousness.
Or am I deluding myself? Is there no such groundswell?
If there is anything that turns people off from Christianity, it is ministers like Pat Robertson blaming the tragic earthquake this week on something that “happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.”
Robertson said that the Haitians “were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ “
“You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”
Of course Robertson is free to believe that, but how does that help the hundreds of thousands of hurting people right now? Comfort and help are in place here on part of the Christian, not obscure spiritual history lessons.