Saturday, 27 December 2014

Victimless Crime and the 'Criminal State'

Let us be controversial. The elephant in the room in any consideration of 'victimless crime' (that is, the intrusion of law or regulation into private choices) is the community-state. It is the claims of the community-state that create victims where there are none - or rather it is the claims of those activist minorities who seize control of the institutions of the State, both legislative and executive, that victimise free persons.

The political tragedy is that there is no absolute reason why some alleged victimless crimes should not be the subject of community action (expressed if necessary through an executive State mechanism). We argue for what is permissible later but we have to be clear that liberty is lost through the process of process (a liberal obsession) getting out of control.

The First Category - Absolute Private Rights

We might start by saying that, of the four general areas of victimless (alleged) criminality, one is an absolute - the right of persons to command their own actions, language and words in consensual acts of any nature under conditions of reasonably full information and without creating non-consensual obligations on others (such as, say, clearing away a body in the case of suicide).

The community has no role to play in private consensual transactions under these conditions. Indeed, the State, rather than other persons, has little role in public consensual transactions either. An offence to one person must as much be regarded as an offence to the other if that offensive act is not then permitted. Good manners are not a matter for the State - the private citizen or subject has, as recourse, the right not to associate with the boor.

The rules regulating alleged offensive behaviour are matters that are, first, based on the equality of all persons in regard to comparative 'offensiveness' and, second, a matter of negotiation between persons. Under this approach, it is reasonable to consider it an offence to intrude noise and images (say) on to the personal self and property of a person yet the control of public space, purely understood, is regulated according to reasonable specific harm to all equally and not simply to the harm felt or perceived by one person and not another.

Aesthetic difference or emotional reaction is not sufficient cause for one person to dictate the behaviour, language or thoughts of another. A distinction thus has to be drawn between an act by a person (who is free) and an act directed at a person (which may be oppressive). The intent of the actor, not the presumption of the 'victim', is what counts. For a man to walk down the street naked with an erect willy may be tasteless but it causes no harm. To assertively wave the willy directly in the face of another is the act of a bully and is offensive - but then so is waving a fist or offering a direct insult. It is not beyond the whit of society to make these distinctions.

A test of inappropriate community power is whether it stops one or more persons being who they are in private or in public (like gay kissing or breast feeding) regardless of the aesthetics of others. Appropriate community power stops any person from forcing their aesthetic not on the community but on another person in a targeted way with deliberation or through ignorance. And, of course, before it is raised, a 'strong' view of consent (involving not only adequate information but the ability to comprehend) is accepted. This does not remove all risk from transactions (since risk is what is to be respected here) but it does protect children, animals, the physically and mentally vulnerable and workers in the work place from abuse because of the power relations involved.

But, again, matters should be appropriate. Sexual harassment of a worker is bullying but sexual conduct between workers is no one's business but that of the workers themselves if it does not breach contractual duties that relate solely to the job in hand. Similarly, the private right to erotic pain is a private right about which the community has nothing to say. Opinions should be free, no matter how 'hurtful' or aesthetically troubling, they are. To be contemptuous of a belief in God or even insanely to believe in conspiracy theory is a private matter. Above all, persons who are adult must be reasonably assumed to have rights to personhood that rise above imposed community norms.

The Nordic laws (Sweden, Norway, Iceland) criminalising adult males for undertaking an economic transaction with a woman for sexual pleasure represent the highest form of cultural oppression: acts of totalitarian war on the choices of both parties where both parties are engaged in a consensual act. These have become oppressive states. Religious insult as a crime must be restricted to going into a Church and asserting contempt or to desecrating Jewish graves and such like acts against individual persons or on communities on their own territory - and they should represent a civil action supported by the state and not a state action alone.

The Second Category - Regulating Harm

The second level of community intervention is where the executive intrudes to stop a person harming themselves. The issue here is the line between acting against a temporary aberration or weak information and oppressively failing to permit persons to make personal developmental choices that might incur risk or danger. This is the 'killing ground' (literally) of the political struggle between 'progressives' and 'libertarians' with the latter being excessively principled in terms of absolutes because the former have engaged in a determined 'mission creep' that extends community control not only over acts but language and thoughts in a wholly unprincipled way.

Drugs and assisted suicide are the obvious knotty issues here but also sex work and gambling. The 'progressive' mentality is piling up spending on industries whose purpose is to save people from themselves in an oppressive and infantilising way. The low point was not just Nordic Fascism but arresting BDSM consensual sado-masochists. Above all, there is no logic to solutions which are oppressive in one nation and free in another. The Nordics have become insanely intrusive into sexual matters while the Americans have an irrational 'thing' about gambling that is incomprehensible to the Chinese. Anglo-Saxons obsess about drugs, the Dutch are more relaxed.

The common sense approach - to reduce expenditure and close down self-sustaining special interest groups as well as restore private freedoms - is to permit in general and regulate in particular, with an emphasis on controlling the conduct of suppliers of services, providing full information and developing escape mechanisms paid for out of taxes raised. So, prostitution, gambling and assisted suicide in extremis might be legalised, regulated to a reasonable degree and (except obviously in the case of assisted suicide) taxed, but the 'consumer' and the 'worker' protected, much as they should be (often inadequately in practice) within the financial services or retail sectors, on these principles:-
  • 'silent harm' (that is, harm arising out of lack of information) should be reduced or eliminated: this would require industry-funded information on real risk in gambling or duties of care on disease transmission in sex work or the offer of counseling and mental health treatment (even drugs like LSD) as alternatives to suicide in terminally ill patients
  • the community state (financed through taxes) should be engaged in general economic equality strategies for women, provide but not enforce skills training to give choice, consider legally enforceable limits (cooling off periods) on decisions to bet high sums or escrow funds for gambling amongst low income earners and so on.
Instead of 'banning' pleasure or risk or 'fundamental choice' trades, the community-state should permit private choice and transaction but force upon producers certain duties of care towards consumers and contracted workers which might include a degree of 'cooling off' on 'major' transactions (betting large sums or death) and should fund alternatives. The cost of 'funding alternatives' is almost certainly going to be less than funding massive security and punishment systems promoted by special interests.

The Third Category - Systems Management

The third category of alleged victimless crime is one that irritates many economic libertarians but it has validity on the basis that it applies where a person is not engaged in private acts but is integrated into a system that has social consequences. The demand for car insurance is an example of this. The free person might object to paying for this, especially if they believe they will never use it but this misses the point, which is that the person is not a free agent in a car but a user of a system that is integrated with other users.

Systems regulation to mitigate harm based on the users' actions en masse is perfectly reasonable but only with two assumptions in mind - that a person can, if they so chose, albeit with inconvenience, opt out of the system (in this case, by not driving on the roads) and that the regulation is proportionate and geared to the facts of the case. The recent EU Court ruling that equalised male and female costs in insurance arrangements is a typical progressive oppression because it shifts the car insurance system from a self-regulating system to an arm of community policy engineered by activists to meet strategic communitarian aims. It is typical of the new European bureaucracy.

However, mandating seat belts and banning the use of mobile phones while driving are permissible restrictions on liberty because the cost to the system as a whole and the potential harm to non-consenting others (including trauma and cost of accidents) makes the point unarguable that action should be taken. As soon as a self-regulating system, usually linked to a technological solution to a human need (such as transport or food or water supply) moves from these two ground rules - the ability to opt out and the necessity to remain proportionate – it shifts from legitimate regulation to our fourth zone of interest, 'government'.

To recapitulate, private lives are not the business of the State, private vices require some degree of regulation as trades in the general public interest and public systems supplying services require a degree of proportionate regulation in order to ensure their proper functioning. But what of government and, indeed, of other non-human entities with claims?

The Fourth Category - The People as Victims of the Criminal State

Government executes a legislative power that might reasonably regulate both 'emotional trades' and complex industrial and post-industrial systems. Government also has certain macro-regulatory functions - which include economic stability, defence of the nation and, more controversially, social order. Crimes against the State are the most difficult of all 'victimless crimes' because the State is a thing-in-itself that claims to represent us as persons but which, in fact, is a bureaucratic self-perpetuating machine that represents only those persons who have seized the levers of power, usually through somewhat spuriously democratic means.

The State is not a moral actor but is merely the vehicle for appropriate conduct (the preservation of order and economic stability to enable private life and the permitted regulatory functions in a complex post-industrial society) by an organisation whose entire claim to rule is ultimately based on the simple expedient of having a monopoly of force. What do we mean by this? Only that the current constitutional liberal democratic State may do all these 'good' things but it is also empowered to do many 'bad' things under the behest not of private persons working in concert within agreed rules about freedom and responsibility but under the behest of those who have seized control of its powers.
  • The State has a professional political class that has no direct link to private persons acting in concert but is entirely beholden to a party structure based on clientage and the influence of special interests.
  • The State has a bureaucratic class that not only has no accountable and direct or indirect link to private persons acting in concert but represents an institutional interest protective of its own status and privileges.
  • The State is surrounded by a parasitical class of representatives of competing special interests who, at their best, improve appropriate regulation but which, at their worst, divert appropriate regulation from the needs of the system or from the consumer or worker in order to strengthen their own financial and ideological interests.
The institutional interest of the State as represented by political, bureaucratic and lobbyist (not excluding countervailing NGO) vested interests creates a profound alienation between the population and its ruling elite who cannot guarantee freedom, who are tempted to interfere in private life and who are incompetent at appropriate regulation. This combination of interests, essential to the self definition of modern liberalism and progressivism and represented by the behemoths of the European Union, the Federal Government in Washington and all democratic capitals, is thus part public service and part criminal racket, designed to divert public funds into the pockets of special interests.

If this is all it is, perhaps we could live with it, but this unholy trinity of politicians, bureaucrats and vested interests brings with it an ideological package that operates against the public interest by using the State as the means to impose their particular vision of what it is to be human. The politicians will not challenge standard cultural norms as fearful electoral conservatives. The 'emotional trades' cannot be regulated properly. Activist groups enter into the political and bureaucratic process and force minor oppressions and major costs on the population. Business perverts the smooth-running of the market at consumer and worker expense.

The victim here is the public. The meaning of criminality has been reversed so that crimes against the State become 'bad' and crimes against persons or the people go unpunished. Petty wars are declared at huge public cost, non-jobs are created that assist the few at the expense of the many and individuals are persecuted by the police to please their security and populist allies. Until we, as a people, understand that we are the victims of this three-fold class of interests and restructure our political decision-making to make our representatives and bureaucrats more directly accountable and activists and lobbyists much more transparent, we will continue to be victims of organised state crime, mostly (admittedly) petty but quite capable of both expropriation and, in war time, enslavement.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

On Objectification

Once upon a time, it was self-evident that God existed and that He was good. Today, it seems equally self-evident to many that there is a thing called sexual objectification and that it is wrong. Just as some people will never not be able to believe in God, so others will never be able to do anything but impute negative moral value to the market in sexual display and observation.

The New Clericalism 
People who have such opinions, whether about the existence of God or the moral horror that is lapdancing, have a right to those opinions. They can go to church or avoid lapdancing clubs as suits them. But what neither should do is dictate the terms of freedom for others.

The Church has largely been chased away from public policy (not quite far enough in our view) but feminist extremism is reaching its apogee of power and may yet institute its horrors on us through the Nordic model. In Hackney and in the progressive communities of the 'new feminism', Church and post-Marxist graduate ideologue have been converging to build critical mass for new social myths and new oppressions, the pseudo-theocracy of the authoritarian activist.

The 'progressive' feminist position was even converging at one point (perhaps still is) with that of the communitarian right - the theory of objectification is flowing into a bed already scoured out in the desert by the Judaeo-Christian concept of 'sin' and by Islamic concepts of womanhood. The thesis is that objectification is a thing that is real and that it is bad and that is what we will deal with here. Both statements are dubious. But we will accept, for the sake of taking on these people on their own ground, that there is something called objectification: that is, that persons treat other persons as things-in-themselves and then we will ask whether this is quite so bad as post-Kantian rectitude asserts.

Sinister Philosophy 

The idea that objectification is a bad thing in itself arises (in modern thought) ultimately from a reading of Immanuel Kant - moral value must lie in never treating another person as the object of one's desires without their interests being at heart. This is fair enough but the way it has been extended by Theory is another matter. This Kantian model, already distanced to a degree from what it is to be human in practice (his position was a moral exhortation rather than a description of the actual situation of humanity where we have to wait until Nietzsche for a fair assessment), got extended by the progressive Left into something very much more demanding, especially under Marxist influence.

Two further ideological formulae were added. The first was that using the labour of another to improve or enrich or take pleasure was always  'exploitation' so that the only unexploited person was one who lived beyond the market in some putative future socialist paradise, a fit religio-metaphysical parallel to the traditionalist's Golden Age or Lost Eden. But the second was more sinister. If Marxism made all current human relations potentially exploitative, another school of thought within Marxism but allied to progressive liberalism and derived from Plato, suggested that consent to exploitation was not permissible because any consensual element was a form of 'false consciousness'.

The Rule of the Few

In other words, Kantianism as interpreted by Marx and Platonic Liberals (regardless of similar but theological criticisms of displaying oneself and observing others) came to mean that: a) we lived in a system of mutual exploitation but b) some people who understood this system had the right to limit exploitative behaviour as preparation for its eventual ending. The denial of personal autonomy explicit in submission to God had come full circle to a denial of personal autonomy in the face of not Providence but History or Right. You can't keep a good sado-masochistic authoritarian nut down for long, it would seem.

The Marxist and Liberal debt to Christianity is as strong here as Christianity's to Platonism. Poor old Kant has long since been left behind and Nietzsche ignored. One central belief here is that mutual exploitation is never beneficial nor ever a reasonable and even pleasurable aspect of being human.
There is the belief, already noted that some people have a right (one not coming from God but from 'reason' or 'analysis') to decide who is being exploited and then judge that this is wrong. But a third belief is that the persons who are then defined as exploited can have no voice in the matters because they are ignorant.

All three of these beliefs are somewhat vile because they systematically deny agency to an individual in whatever situation they happen to be in and deliver them up to the situation as interpreted by others. The first belief denies humanity its right to be human and twists it into a rationalist simulacrum of itself. The second is inegalitarian not by way of attribute within a free society but by the fiat of the few who seek to command the many. The third shows contempt for the ability of persons, no matter how 'lowly', to make decisions in their own interest.

Objectification as Temporary States of Being

But let us get back to objectification itself which contains two states of being (we will not call them rights because this concedes too much ground to the 'progressives') - that of displaying and that of observing. The dialectic of displaying and observing is separate again from a personal decision to do one or the other.

A central if implicit psychological theme of much 'objectification discourse' is that display or observation are assaults not only on the person who objects to these states in others but on 'society' - that is, even if no one objects to a display or observation, in some mysterious way there is an observer of the display or of the observation who does. This observer would seem to be the re-invention of God but on terms that pander to the superior knowledge of the intellectual who can interpret Him.

In fact, most, though not all, display and observation falls into the category of the victimless crime at worst and, at best, as a matter of civil dispute between the displayer and the observer or the observer and the observed. The discomfort of one person is otherwise privileged wholly without any equity being invested in the inconvenience of another.

Worse, the politics of objectification means that the State and the community (in a grim repetition of the dark days of Judaeo-Christian control of public policy) are brought into play in order to demand that the observer not observe and the displayer not display. This is only the mirror image of a theoretical State demand that the observer must observe and the displayer must display that we see in the contemporary surveillance State. Obliging people by diktat to observe or not observe or display or not display is of the very essence of totalitarianism.

Politics of Disgust

No policy equitably forces the unobserved to be forcibly observed or the undisplayed to be forcibly displayed. Quite rightly. men and women are not forced to parade naked down the street but the man or woman who wishes to parade naked down the street is always regarded as having broken some law (even when, in fact, they have not).

We are, of course, embedded here in the politics of disgust and in the conservative politics of custom, forgetting that custom was once invented and often invented by earlier versions of the 'disgusted' personality types who most object to the sexual or display rights of others.

But let us get down to basics here because most reasonable restrictions on display and observation have nothing to do with the community or the State, and certainly nothing to do with the minority of 'activists' who exist within some text-based ideological framework. They are a matter of good manners and manners are never a matter for States.

Let us now reverse the radical feminist position: free persons generally know their own interest and politics should only be about increasing the flow of information to persons (education) and of free resources (economic redistribution which is where I part company with classic American libertarianism) as well as creating opportunity to escape untenable situations. It should not be about moral condemation of private acts.

The Moralists as Waste of Political Space
If the State and the ideologues cannot deliver full information, resources and escape valves (the three key tasks of the State other than security), then it is for ordinary folk to make the best decisions that they can about getting through the day. If that includes a drink, a flutter on the horses, a bit of drug-taking, lapdancing and even prostitution, these must be assumed to be rational decisions.

A woman or man who makes such choices is not 'weak' or 'inferior' but is dealing the best way they can with their circumstances and they are more likely to escape those circumstances if they are harmful to them if they are respected for their efforts and given what help is available without moral grandstanding from 'committees'.

But most people involved in display and observation are not at the margins of society. Display and observation are central to what it is to be a human being. The right to be naked, the right to get maximum economic value out of your looks, the right to aspire to look good, these are all sneered at by extremist feminists and yet this is what people want. None of those who want this are in any way to be regarded as inferior to those who choose to clothe themselves from top to toe, avoid make-up, look frumpy - and vice versa. These are just life choices.

Observation is a pleasure. There is a reasonable anti-exploitative argument that anyone in the adult industries should be decently paid, have appropriate healthcare facilities and not be forced into anything that was not consensual - but this applies to all workers in all industries. Conditions in some adult entertainment industries are clearly better today than in some sweatshop suppliers of manufactured items that radicals use every day without thinking how they came to be.

Choice is a Value
There is, however, no argument (if people make free choices that are economically rational and are not enslaved) against the right of people to earn revenue from physical attributes or skills for the pleasure of those who observe. To say otherwise is to deny humanity to the observer and economic value to the observed.

The alternative of feminist moralism is that the observed ends up in a dead end job with less money and probably a worse sexual mate while the observer becomes depressed and possibly vicious. But there is bigger charge to answer for those opposed to the theory of objectification. Feminist theory would claim that it is wrong in itself to observe or engage with another person sexually as a commodity or as an object for use.

However, the privileging of sexuality is curious here because there are other aspects of human activity that are equally fundamental and where one is normally treated as a commodity or as an object of use. We are treated like this every day as consumers, as voters, as contracted workers and spiritually by religious and community leaders.

The Peculiar Hold of the Sexual
What is the peculiar hold of sexuality in this general attitude to the use of humans as commodities and objects of use. Why is sexuality given a sacral nature that is not by any means essential. This fascistic over-emphasis on sexual purity is really just the special interest of one part (some women and some men) of one part of the community (all other people).

Logically, if we were truly serious about objectification, we would have a general critique of commodification and, of course, some very radical feminists manage this purist position - being anarcho-socialist feminist atheists without employment who effectively live outside society.

But, for most people most of the time, this is an utterly absurd stance. To survive in the world not only economically but in terms of simple pleasures and psychologically with some constructed meaning and participation, we require a society in which exploitation not only takes place but must take place.

The question of exploitation is not that it takes place but how to make it 'fair' - that is, how is the exploitation to be limited to the essential for mutual survival and then balanced out so that the few never exploit the many. How, in other words, is a pleasurable mutual exploitation going to result in a society where exploitation is a pleasure for all and everything balances out.

The Market & Desire
The market to some extent, over time, manages to do some of the balancing but not very effectively. The State does have some role in correcting imbalances and civil society (notably trades unions) has another but both the State and civil society have a tendency to be captured by ideologues and people of simple mind.

The theory of objectification has created an 'absolute' where our situation is one of 'relatives'. Thus the man who looks at a naked beautiful woman is designated a 'pervert' and the woman who strips for him as a 'slut' when, in fact, truth to be told, the man is just being a man (of equal worth to a woman) and the woman is stripping him of his resources.

The roles can be reversed. A woman may spend her money to see some inconsequential film that would bore any man silly because the 'star' offers her a fantasy that is really not so different from the man's but just involves less interest in exchange of body fluids.

Human desire is important. It fuels us as persons. It makes us who we are. Those who satisfy our desires should be well recompensed. And the person who thwarts desire by stopping the trade in desire through some asinine theory from academic philosophers is worse than dessicated, they are anti-human.

Disrespect and Objectification
Objectification is simply part of the social trade in desires. Perhaps we can move steadily towards an equality of desires. The real revolution for women must be to ensure that their desires are given equal weight to that of men rather than allow the suppression of the desires of both men and women for some dream of a socialised a-sexuality.

There is no intrinsic reason why objectification as such shows any disrespect to a woman (or to a man's) personal or intellectual capabilities. This is a feminist myth that deliberately misunderstands the nature of time, of context and of choice.

The central point here is that any act of objectification is not permanent. Objectification is a period of time during which a desire or the fantasy is lived. It is not a state of permanent being but a state of temporary being. When the moment is over, the participants return to what they were or at least are changed inwardly by the experience (in very personal ways that can never be assumed to be 'good' or 'bad') but the objectifier has no hold over the objectified unless the objectified is a neurotic - which is, bluntly, their problem. Most of what happens in most situations is imagined and distant.

This fundamental error of objectification theory - that it is exploitative - is important to understand. It confuses structural exploitation (where coercion lies within poverty or the limits of some communitarian authority) with a momentary exchange. Poverty may dictate the terms of the exchange but it is the poverty or other external matter, bullying probably, that is the problem. These post-Marxist pseudo-radicals need to get back to problems of coercion and poverty and away from imagined problems of culture and language.

Vicious Totalitarians
In nearly every area where extremist feminists rant against other women's choices, they are thus acting as somewhat vicious totalitarians because they are taking the symptoms for the disease.

The only objection to a woman being portrayed as weak or submissive in pornography, for example, is the same as one portraying a man as weak or submissive - that is, if the man or woman was coerced or not decently treated during the process. Otherwise, it is his or her decision to sell and his or her decision to buy.

Moreover, and this is central to my argument, equality between men and women permits perfect equality of desire. To condemn males for their desire as 'aggressive' or 'perverted' and privilege women in theirs is grossly unfair and leads to the logic of a negation of desire for both men and women, equally, as the only way to restore 'fairness'.

Feminist Ariel Levy thinks that modern society (as if there was such a reified thing) 'encourages' women to objectify themselves. The tone could only come from a text-worshipping academic. Such language denies the right of women to decide for themselves their own status as both subjects and objects in contexts they choose. Some are being led into submission to academic theorists in a manner little different to those who were led into futile and cruel political ideologies in the first half of the last century,

Feminist Perspectives

Levy is said to have been surprised at how many of her interviewees saw the new raunchy culture emerging in the twenty-first century as representing the triumph of feminism because it showed that American women had become strong enough to display on their terms and accept objectification as empowering. She should not have been.

While many women are embarrassed or made uncomfortable by the male or indeed female gaze (and good manners suggests that they should not be so embarrassed in private relations), many others take immense pleasure in it.

The ultimate absurdity lies in a male critic, John Stoltenberg, who condems as 'wrong' (where do they get their ethics from), any sexual fantasy that involves visualisation of a woman. This is so anti-human as to beggar belief. This could be a saint in the desert. Objectification is just what all persons do and it should be embraced not as unethical but as challenging.

The real issue here is understanding the line between reality and fantasy. The fear of the feminist and their fellow-travellers is legitimate - lack of equal regard and coercion - but their consequent analysis is quite simply ignorant.

Fear and Coercion
The radical feminist theorist lacks judgement and balance. So terrified are they that thoughts about inequality and coercion might lead to actual inequality and coercion that one suspects that the theory is about their own anxiety in this respect more than it is derived from any real understanding of how most persons understand that boundary.

Stoltenberg is an extreme example of the dehumanising tendencies of this deep neurosis amongst people of the text, one which derives from their deep belief that texts matter. To them, if texts matter, then thoughts which are made up of the same material (words) matter - and thoughts that lead to texts must also lead to acts.

Of course, in the real world, things do not work like that. Texts are not quite that important any more but, more to the point, thoughts are often substitutes for acts and ensure that acts are not perpetrated  - while acts are often thoughtless. Unravel the primitive humanist belief in the validity of the text, the delusion of the educated and suddenly a lot of the problem evaporates as mist drifts away in the morning sunlight.

The culture of the intellectual confuses act, text and thought into a false coherence that excludes all ambiguity despite the fact that all actual human relations are about ambiguity, confusion and compromise. All intellectualisms that have not understood this, particularly Platonic, Kantian and Marxist thought, build an entirely false picture of social reality - and from that great pain and suffering has resulted.

Text, Thought & Act
To actual persons engaged in the world, however, act, text and thought are very different, with text both a technical manual for action and a means of inspiring thought and imagination. However, words themselves limit action and people engage in consensual objectification in very precise contexts.

What is more remarkable, given the frustrations of modern life, is the lack of viciousness on a day-to-day basis. Even the most cursory of reading of the history of erotica will indicate that viciousness increases to the degree that sexuality is repressed and all sexual expression involves a degree of objectification.

Camille Paglia, a feminist to be admired in this respect, puts it well: "Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties of our species." To try to change this is to try change humanity which, given the nature of our evolution, means, in effect, a cultural Sovietisation of sexual relations. A grim prospect indeed!

Paglia understands that humans are defined in part by their ability to conceptualise and to make value judgements about the beautiful to which I would add their ability to contextualise themselves and to differentiate between various functioning realities in different contexts.

Objectification Theory - An Insult to Women
The theory of objectification ends up as deeply insulting to women - not only because it removes choice (in itself an assault on their rights as persons) but because it has an abstract theory dictate that choice in regard to the use of their bodies as well as their minds and deeper nature.

Yes, we (and not just girls and women) develop our view of ourselves from the observation of others and, yes, the whole person questions this and challenges those views in their own inner interest but, no, the social construction of ourselves is not a bad in itself if it is critically challenged not on the basis of theory but of that of personhood.

What happens in much feminist theory is that a wholly theoretical construct of what it is to be a woman - an essentialist construct - is positioned outside society and beyond the individual. The way that feminism has distanced itself from the existentialist critique of De Beauvoir is downright embarrassing. A woman is ordered to comply with that essentialist positioning. She is, in effect, dragged into a theoretical future and away from herself.

A Caveat on Body Image

Now a note of caution is required. All this is not to say that a false relationship between one's own body image and social expectations is not a serious mental health issue in some cases but these are cases of personal adaptation in which the person is not critically engaged in their own being or has suffered some negative private psychological pressure.

Personal issues which seem to be aligned with feminist theory must be taken into account but we must look on these as problems for persons which have objectifying aspects. In other words, there is not a crisis of objectification but a failure of healthy objectification, indeed probably a crisis of healthy desire and playfulness.

The body image issue in such cases is vitally important but it is specific and not general. The imposition of strategies based on objectification theory to all men and women in this context is as absurd as dictating severe diet or lifestyle changes to all persons because some persons suffer serious physical health from specific dietary or lifestyle problems.

As in physical health public policy planning, there is a severe danger here that progressive rationalists chip away at the freedoms of the many in order to deal with the problems of the few and so begin to undertake social engineering that relates to their own political aesthetic rather than to the real needs of the many.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Playing with Lacan ... Love, Desire & Cowardice

This post is not to be taken overly seriously. It is an over-simplified approach to Lacanian thought. I take him as the 'other' against whom I measure my argument but it does no justice to the complexity of his performance. I write performance because I cannot take him seriously as a formal thinker but only as a poet or life-dramatist arising out of the surrealist tradition. My contribution is thus necessarily merely playful and provocative despite its formalism.

Are we captured by our environment? Do we create an image of ourselves designed to allow us to operate in the world? This is Lacan's early insight - that, whether he is precisely right about its origins in our condition of coming into the world, persons construct imaginary selves to navigate reality.

The Invention of Reality

The imagined self is to all intents and purposes our reality - it is our operating system. Our self-constructed imagination of the world merely gives us imaginary selves to test out new ways of dealing with our environment. The imagined self may be functionally and pragmatically 'real' but it is not the whole story of our body's relationship to reality.

Freud and Lacan, by observation and experimentation, saw that this imagined self would see reality as material or social fact at one level but then re-interpret it with narratives that were somewhat false. The conclusion drawn was that persons need coherence and completeness in preference to truth whenever the truth is neither coherent or complete.

Falsehoods to oneself and others are thus the very stuff of humanity. It is the imagined self of the other that is the person that we will have deal with. No imagined self is a reliable guide to the world or to its own full self - Anton Wilson's biogram. It is a projection, a performance, an actor or actress.

We can re-interpret this eighty years on by considering the piecemeal nature of our sensory inputs (as increasingly revealed by neuro-science) and the instant subconscious choices that create coherence out of fragmented reality as we create our own sense of 'reality'. The self is building an interpretation of reality out of its own expectations and templated choices.

Becoming Paranoid

Barriers to reality (what actually exists 'out there') are thus two-fold - the choices made by sensory inputs (which may have strong genetic elements) and the construction of reality out of the sensory inputs (which is redraft of a previous mental draft and so dependent upon its own past). Without a conscious redraft, our mental text originates from the one with which we were born and which has had overlaid upon it all the cultural and social habits that Anton Wilson calls the logogram.

Paranoia arises when our mental text (and our description of the world is linguistic and not merely experienced) begins to redraft sensory inputs in a radical way to avoid any creative redrafting that would return us back to a right understanding of both ourselves and the world. Investment in the original mental text has become so great that reality must now change to save the text - the imagined self spins off into insanity.

In the most extreme cases, the mental text becomes the world - which perhaps is analogous to those social insanities where texts become the world for whole societies. Personal madness is the ideology of an imagined self taking charge of reality dysfunctionally just as social madness is ideology dictating social action, perhaps in excess of invented functionality. This will be dealt with below.

Lacan suggested that human knowledge itself was 'paranoiac'. He was sociologically right insofar as defining existence imposes boundaries on existence, an ordering of existence, that detaches the knower from existence itself. However, this is not a value judgement just an observation.

The Rationality of Madness

Lacan's greatest insight was perhaps to point out that madness is perfectly rational once certain understandings are in place, much as ideology is perfectly rational once you accept certain initial absurdities (such as God or scientific materialism or the 'war on women') and then link real phenomena to what is presented in the world in the light of these absurdities.

Madness is always logical in this sense. The relationship between the body (which is detached from the imagined self or ego) and the sub-conscious - an insight of Reich in his work on body armour - brings the body back into consideration as a sign and signal of not only physical but mental pain. The logic is far more hidden in neurosis than psychosis but it is there.

A physical pain might be interpreted as a mental signal that is seeking from the imagined self some reconsideration of its own mental drafting. The conditions of such a pain (if not organic) give profound clues to the nature of any redrafting of reality that is required to bring the body back into line with a workable imagined self.

Language in this respect is a mediator so that physical pain and the subconscious use of language are all appeals to the desire that the 'text' refuses to recognise. These are words that are demanding to be included in our text instead of being left to the side unused.


Words and images provide a data bank for analogy - much as magical thinking uses language and imagery analogically to build alternate realities where people have more control, at least imaginatively, of their lives. This data bank can be plundered to hold the line against internal rigidities and stop the march to full paranoid detachment.

Whenever external texts are used - whether for the person or the society - we are seeing the half-way house of near-madness that we referred to in a previous posting, that point where texts and words are used both to protect society or the individual from their own true nature and to suggest adaptations to make things tolerable but not 'true to themselves'.

The words are thus never the thing, never the person and never representative of the human condition, but the free play of words permits an entity the opportunity to assert some value that is more in accord with reality (as society or person) than the imagined and constructed self of ego or ideology.

Words, gestures and images are our first line of defence (if they are our words and not the words of others) but they are also a 'false friend' because they compromise from the start with the very nature of ideology to set terms on the permissibility of our language and with the imagined self whose adaptations are to be constructed almost entirely out of inherited words and images - references back to something 'golden' that should have have been rather than what is if we were only to look and see.


Language is at the heart of our alienation as persons. Language gets in the way of us being who we are even as it is the most effective tool for our being able to function in the world with and against others. Every time we are defined by ourselves or others, we lose something of our complex selves. Every time we define, we insult the complexity of the other person and mislead ourselves about the nature of social reality. The social sciences are the sciences of misleading ourselves in a disciplined way.

Nevertheless, the point about words is that they are not a simple matter of relationship between signifier and signified but that each word is a connection to other words which connect ad infinitum into the past. The tension between the ego-draft (or social-draft or ideology) and the alternate possible draft that each use of language implies is profound.

Every dissident thought within a society that is expressed in words has revolutionary potential because it offers an alternate reality to the 'given' draft.  Every imaginative rethinking of reality has the same potential for the liberation of the individual. Reality is symbolic. Art and magic are ways in which people attempt to circumvent language but even they are, like poetry, evasions, failures to look language in the eye and challenge its domination of us.

But, and this is where madness comes into the frame, a dissident thought or imaginative rethinking of reality that is not in accord with objective physical and relational reality beyond the social and beyond the individual is in danger of replacing the 'zombie' conditions of the ideological-social or the socialised person with a form of madness. Which makes us ask - what is madness under such conditions?

What is Madness?

The reality of madness as a biological and so physical reality, making people dysfunctional in the world and often deeply frightened and miserable, cannot be dismissed. In the individual, such madness debilitates and destroys but, in a society, it creates either an alternate ideological 'reality' (a false reality) or a form of free-floating paranoia which is where we may be heading in a rootless cosmopolitan globalised society where the ideology is to have no ideology other than distrust.

In 1968, Lacan famously said to the students: "I won't mince my words. What you want is another master". Perhaps he remembered Kojeve's lectures on Hegel and the master-slave dialectic but the point is well taken. To remove one ideological framework is to imply its replacement or collapse rather than paradise - to be liberated from a thesis, the ideologue feels he must enslave himself to the antithesis. This is no liberation, just a swapping of seats.

This gives us a clue to how we may handle symbolic reality whether as persons or as a society. The answer is a somewhat trans-human one because it suggests a conscious awareness of one's symbolic history and an active acceptance or rejection of its components rather than the assumption of it as a whole that is intrinsically right and proper.

If we learn who we are because of the defining of oneself in language by others, then, if we become that definition, we are no longer who we are to ourselves but a creation of history and the social. If we are not comfortable with this then, despite the claims of the Hegelian 'realists', we have a choice to rewrite history, redraw social relations and redefine ourselves. Our future is not cast in stone - we can re-make it through resistance to the texts that define us.

The Hidden 'Other'

This may involve asking whether significant others are oppressive or supportive and ruthlessly rejecting those who stereotype or define us to meet their own needs and not ours. The same culling may take place in the acceptance or rejection of ideas or pleasures. Why do we go to Church if it gives us nothing? Why vote if it changes nothing?

This is where Lacanian insights are useful when the question is asked to whom you are appealing when you act in a such-and-such way. If you go to church, who are you going to church for? If you vote, who are you voting for (not in terms of the candidate but the 'hidden watcher' who helped create your symbolic universe)? What are these habits and what secret anxieties to they hide?

It cuts both ways. If you ostentatiously do not go to Church or vote, who are you ostentatiously trying to tell that you do not go to church or vote? Language as change presupposes some 'other' to which talk or speech is directed. How to stop speaking to the other and engage in a conversation with your secret self does not say you will or should go to church or vote or not but it will bring the decisons into line with who you are and should be to yourself. For the record, I don't go to church and only intermittently vote when I feel it is important.

The paradox in personal and political language is that language as ego-construction and ideology blocks off reality but linguistic expression appears to be the only means of effecting any change to social conditions or to the person. We cannot live without language but the world in which it is our master and the world in which it is consciously used as our tool or weapon are very different.

The Intellectual and the Other

This applies as much to culture and politics as personal relations. One speaks if not to an identifiable other then to an 'other' who serves as reason for speech. The radical intellectual is speaking to no one that he sees while writing his article nor to every person who may read it but is speaking to an imaginary interlocutor who is a projection of himself. He is trying to order the world because he feels the need for order in himself.

After a while, the functional nature of the intellectual, as of the person, coalesces around this symbolic other who is really an avatar of himself. Indeed, with modern communications technology, we have avatars of the self speaking to yet other avatars of the self in order to communicate with the wider universe. The multiplication of self-avatars represents the very essence of a new phenomenon - the virtual society mediated by the internet.

Beyond all this lies the 'real' which might be confused with the existentialists' Existence but which is really that which lies between Existence and our own symbolic and imagined personal or social realities. It is that which is there, including the material effects of other men's dreamings, but which is not articulated to be there - it is the dark matter of being and it comprises most of our world.

We only know it is there when we consider the possibility of its being there or notice the lack behind what we see or experience as there. Perhaps its non-existence in our minds is what makes us into zombies because only non-zombies can see what exists as a function of what is not there (as a 'lack').

The Ineluctability of Political Persons

The Lacanian distrust of the 'I' statement is critical here. When someone says that they approve or disapprove of military action against (say) Syria (under conditions where their opinion matters not one jot to the action itself), then the assertion is an expression not so much of the 'I' but of something behind the 'I'.

This helps to explain one of the great truths of Facebook - no matter how much reasoning is employed, most persons most of the time 'stick with their position'. The 'position' is derived from something beyond access to new reasoning and that derivation is almost certainly embedded in some 'other' that is being identified as essential to identity.

To some extent social intelligence can be defined by the looseness of this identity - we have all seen the 'vulnerable' personality who scuttles from a robust Facebook Group debate because they think a critique of the existence of God or a questioning of the existence of patriarchy is a personal attack on them. They feel bullied because they have weak identities while their opponents are often just secure in their ability not only to challenge but to be challenged.

These 'weak identities' are matched by weak identities who are bullies - people who cannot argue through the logosphere but must attack the person. Both types - the weak and the bullies - tend to get exuded by the strong in free debate and, as in 'real life', the weak seek protective regulation to buttress their weak identities and the bullies seek regulation to enforce their world view on others.

Persons and societies will always be divided in these ways in all possible human worlds because persons and societies not only have multiple perspectives in themselves but societies have the multiple perspectives of multiple persons. The person who is militaristic may live inside a person who is socialist without any awareness of the rational problem of both existing together. Almost any set of rationalising variations is possible even if the vast majority fall into easy to accept categories that make life easier for themselves.

The ego will readily rationalise all this into something that passes for reasonable but, in doing so, it will redefine its terms to allow it to undertake this mental legerdemain and, in doing so, become more resistant than ever to reasonable criticism - precisely because the structure they have created is a paradigm that cannot afford any cracks. Like madness - as we have seen - political ideologies are always perfectly logical in their absurdities.


An ideology like Marxism, for example, might go through the process whereby a core inherited belief (say, the withering away of the State) and the actual practice of power require a rigid totalitarianism to hold them together. The personality type that holds together incompatible propositions by its nature is likely to feel happiest in an authoritarian ideology of this type.

The more internal contradictions in relation to the messiness of the real world, the more the collapse into Authority. The difference between the authoritarian and the liberated is, thus, the difference between seeing the accumulated history of one's situation as a 'given' to be managed or as an opportunity for further change and experience.

Institutionalisation, with its body of inherited codes and behaviours, represents both the paradise of the authoritarian and the hell of the libertarian. The first, desperate to extend order over reality, tries to impose church, state, party, marriage and law on the latter. The latter is often disadvantaged because there is no will to put in place the organisational structures required for their own survival.

This is not to say that institutional organisation is not necessary to undertake functional tasks (like provide clean water or get a plane to fly) but only that there is a difference between creating functionality for individual will or pleasure and creating functionality for symbolic representation. The challenge for the anarcho-libertarian is how to create sufficient organisation (an innoculation, if you like) against the virus of authoritarianism - and it is a challenge generally evaded and a fight generally lost from naivete and incompetence.

Markets & Love

The market brokers functionality for individual will or pleasure but the existence of authoritarians and libertarians alongside each other in the market makes the market problematic. Libertarians are rarely equal in political or cultural purchasing power - and so societies like persons are perpetually conflicted or else sclerotic.

Authoritarian obsessionalism in societies and persons tends to a living self-mortification just as a libertarian curiosity about the 'other' (a perpetual desire for the new) might lead to neurosis if the understanding of what is actually going on in the desire is limited.

It may seem odd to introduce the idea of love or desire into the discussion at this point but it is the relationship to desire that defines our accommodation to this world. The point about desire and love is that demand is never able to be satisfied once that path is chosen.

This is very disturbing to some people. It results in an unconscious denial of desire (the impulse of the so-called 'great religions' which are at the heart of the institutionalisation of culture) which, of course, is worse than acceptance of desire because it denies not the possibility of fulfilment of desire but the fact of desire itself - absurd because it is human to desire.

Displacement of Desire

Displacement of desire may result in fetishism in the person but it also has social effects in the displacement into an obsessive interest, without functional value in terms of direct acquisition of resources or power or participation as an individual, in politics or culture or sport. Above all, it tends to voyeurism or exhibitionism.

These are displaced desires for actual power or participation and are as absurd as fetishism - yet wholly necessary for those who have not been able to fulfil their desires 'in action' so to speak without the crutch of observing and commentating on the performance of others.

But if anything explains the persistent anxiety of the thinking person, it is this - the inability never to know what the mysterious other truly wants. Not knowing what the mysterious other - woman, self, interlocutor - wants is the source of passion and creativity but also anxiety, depression and indecision.

As Lacan pointed out in the 1950s, all desire has fetishistic qualities insofar as all attraction is to the components of the desired as much as to the whole of a person - a preference for redheads, say, over any other hair colour. The desire for love may be unconditional but love is directed very conditionally despite claims to the contrary. There is always something specific being desired whose direct expression is usually being avoided or evaded.

Sex and Existence

It is uncovering our real desires without the need for displacement which is interesting because we are all embedded in a world where there is no language and so no social order that can deal with sex or the fact of existence.

The only step we can take is to capture language for ourselves regardless of the effects on others. Take: 'I love you'. This is now so socially embedded in its multiple meanings that it is difficult to say for many people. There is an anxiety about misunderstanding. So, something important is often never expressed. Instead of taking the risk of saying it and then exploring the meaning through action in the world, it remains a phrase that festers in the hearts of the meek.

One approach might be to recapture this and other phrases by stating them regardless of the anxiety, shifting responsibility for the anxiety to the other person. Does this seem cruel? Not at all because the other person is free to make what they wish of the language and reject or accept on their terms - and so things can move forward. The 'sayer' simply has to accept the risk of rejection and 'rejection fear' is at the very heart of human cowardice and leads directly back to the easy fall into the jackboot and the uniform. 'Belong me into order', the frightened human rabbit says.

This is a revolutionary reversal of traditional modes in society. Instead of allowing anxiety and rational argument to thwart desire out of fear of consequences, the default position becomes the expression of desire and the acceptance of consequences. Ours may be the first non-aristocratic society where that is possible - in theory.

Final Linguistic Trickery

However, desire has become associated in our culture with an authoritarian notion of 'sin' and controlling desire has come to be an 'ethical' position yet it is quite possible, indeed probable, that 'sin' actually lies in an unnecessary state of anxiety and the failure to communicate and that the relief of tension involved in expressing desire will result in ethical consequences.

Remember - this is linguistic trickery. The revealing of desire is not the acting out of desire. Saying 'I love you' or 'I hate you' is not rape ... words are not actions, a proposition very difficult for modern liberal totalitarians to understand. To say, we repeat, is not to do - words are not things in the world. Assuming consensuality, the desire might then be acted out but the consensual nature of human relations is a given here. The expression of desire must include this courage to accept rejection.

To communicate desire and accept the consequences of rejection is truly revolutionary. It enables learning - both to find new ways to express desire and to adapt to others' different ideas of desire. It stands against authority and the 'other' as arbiter of anxiety and it enables the libertarian to draw a line in the sand against both the authoritarian and the weakness of liberal fears, against both the rat and the mouse.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

On Madness & Socialisation ...

Are minds today different from minds in the past and why? An equally interesting question is why do some minds seem to reflect entirely the values and attitudes of the past and others to arrive at entirely new values, some of which seem to have no obvious past equivalent? How is the 'now' constructed? I am not going to try to deal with these questions here but only to pursue a train of thought circling the position of radical scepticism about what we can know about past minds.

One major problem is, of course, that we cannot know other minds even when they are present to us. This is that central issue raised by Thomas Nagel of what it is like to be a bat. We cannot really know what it is to be a bat. We are constantly imagining what it might like to be another human just as we can imagine that we know what it would be like to behave like a bat yet we cannot ever be a bat. Other humans are, in this sense, bats. We cannot be other humans. We can only surmise the contents of other people's minds from our own mind's operations and their behaviour as seen through the lens of our own experience. We rely on evidence and if the evidence is flawed, our analysis must be flawed.

Language (texts in particular) are false friends in telling us what other minds are like. Those people who say that they know that people in the past thought in such-and-such a way are really only telling us what they think other people may have thought (a 'best and most probable guess'), generally based on these false friends (as texts) which say only what a few people said in specific literary contexts or as reported by people seeking to use the words as weapons or tools for their own purposes. Even very recently, we may have archives of papers and they may tell us a great deal about how decisions were made, the tensions between people and what people said they believed but they can never give us access to the private conversations, silences and thoughts of people who may have been playing very different games from the ones outlined in those texts.

Past minds are thus largely unknown except in defined historical conditions where the minds are really just functions of a social operation and what we do know is often based on merely textual material that the past has used for its own purposes with the inner motives often masked. All texts are performances where we do not know or perhaps care what the actor is really like but only what he or she is trying to present themselves as on stage. We reinterpret the play, guided by the script and the skill of the actors, in order to present them to ourselves as what we paid to see - as exemplars, as warnings, as tales, as imaginings, as the building blocks to an argument in our local context.

However, there do seem to be differences in minds between generations that can be observed by us in the here and now and we should not assume that such differences did not exist in the past. Things do change even if we are unsure of what we can know. For example, there seem to be functional 'brain differences' emerging between minds that depend for their meaning on texts and the rest of the population and between minds that rely on printed texts and those that rely on internet 'textuality'. There is no reason why these effects of technological change should not apply as much to the past as the present. The technological conditions of each age appear to dictate not merely the forms of thought but also our ability to contextualise and judge content so the current age of high complexity and mass interactive communications suggests that the past is going to be mentally different from the present even if we cannot know much about the minds of the present and less about the minds of the past.

The shift of minds from printed texts, cinematic story-telling and still photography and art works to fast-moving video game play, internet grazing and interactivity does seem to be, literally, changing minds. Most of this is represented in the media by standard issue cultural hysteria but the issues raised are serious and they may take some time to work their way through to changes in our own capacity and culture.

Memory effects seem to be of most interest under conditions where there is no now requirement for memory palaces and loss of interest in rote learning for anything but basic skills. However, the mind that thinks in terms of textual 'canons' (where part of the personality has been pre-templated from 'great works') is very different from the mind that operates synchronically with a fast-moving world in a constant revision of mental drafts. Rote learning is also associated with traditionalist text-based canons for a good reason - both are emergent properties of the Iron Age yet we are now in the Silicon Age where general information is broadly free and widespread and not held tight by small elites. There is no point in 'valuating' this as good or bad, worse or better, but there is equally no point in resisting the facts of the matter - minds are changing and must have changed in similar ways in the past. If we have problems understanding these changes today, how can we possibly believe we know how minds functioned even in the recent past.

There are many thinkers who have prepared the ground for the new ways of thinking based on new technologies - we have often pointed out the role of the existentialists and phenomenologists and, more recently, radical trans-humanist thought - but there are also contributions from psychologists. Again, the tentative findings of consciousness studies, neuroscience and the cognitive sciences seem to be lock-stepping with our use of the new technologies. We have already noted the flawed but dynamic reasoning of Wilhelm Reich and the absurdity of behaviourism except as a functional tool but another fruitful line of enquiry is that of Lacan.

Lacan is a problem in many respects but one stands out. It is the problem of all thinkers working within a pre-ordained theory. The truth becomes impenetrable because the thinker is operative within a framework which is mere mysticism at root. Lacan's mystical belief system is Freudianism - much as others operate within Marxist or scholastic frameworks. Early Reichian theory - for example - is hobbled by Reich's commitment to Marxism. It might be argued that Lacan cannot be removed from his framework any more than, say, Lenin or Aquinas from theirs. There is some truth in this but only if we insist on treating these thinkers as texts and not as door-openers, introducers of new ideas that help drive culture even as the texts begin to ossify their followers. One should follow the ideas through to new ideas and not dwell amidst the textual interpreters of ideas.

Lacan was imaginatively engaged in the mind and was closely associated with the surrealist movement which was a living cultural force in the interwar period. It was not just that surrealism responded to a psychological theory (Freudian) but that Lacan's thought and surrealism engaged in a direct dialectic with the intellectual life of artists and thinkers.

The first Lacanian case (amongst scarcely any published) is that of Marguerite. Forget the detail (which involves a 'mad' attempt to murder a famous actress of the day) except to note that we have a paranoiac who identifies with the actress, in herself a 'false front' for social performance. Forget also that Lacan stank as a psychotherapist and was a consummate narcissist on his own account (in the minds of some, a brilliant high functioning sociopath) and see him as an interpreter of culture which is where he may have something to say to us. The desire to be an actor or actress is not uncommon but it is madness to seek to kill one because you have over-identified with her (if we accept Lacan's interpretation).

What is important here is not the case but the use  to which Lacan put it. Here were the seeds of the uncovering of something that divides the contemporary mind and those who just 'exist' in inherited versions of the past - an understanding of how our identities are constructed by our appropriation of the social (of objects and of others, both real and imagined). This awareness is revolutionary and certainly derives from the 'uncovering' of the unconscious as a central cultural concept. Once we know this, then the search for individual identity or individuation (to leap across to the world of Jung) requires a shift from having the social thrust upon us in order to create our identity from without to re-ordering the social in order to have it reflect an identity that we have created for ourselves alongside the social.

What is interesting about this is that cases like Marguerite are 'mad' only because they have taken a step towards liberation (the attempt to construct an identity that chooses what to appropriate in the social to meet psychic needs) but have imaginatively detached themselves from the functional reality of the social. One is reminded of the 'mad' Last King of the Imperial Dynasty of America in Chambers' the Repairer of Reputations: the hero has a collection of books on Napoleon, the quintessential mad appropriation of the nineteenth century, on his mantelpiece. It could be argued that the fully socialised who are mere reflections of social order and have 'no individual mind' represent one radical category, the individuated who can see the social as just a set of tools for individuation as another radical category and the 'mad' (especially the paranoiac) as representing a half world radical category between the two. The 'mad' simply seek to appropriate the social (in Marguerite's case, the adulation and status of the actress) as a tool without understanding how it all works.

From this perspective, 'madness' (and an awful lot of persons are mad by this definition) is a perceptual problem about the social and its functional reality equivalent to the perceptual problems of inadequate sensory inputs but it is one that is essentially a failure of reason (as madness is classically understood) combined with a failure to 'know thyself' in a socialised context. Madness' thus lies somewhere between the rationality of the social and the reasoning of the individual - the first operating as a blind machine underpinned by manipulative social engineers (the 'reasonable' basis for individual paranoia) and the second struggling to assert the individual will against the enormity of the first (whilst not descending or ascending to the status of high functioning sociopath).

Some cannot cope with the strain - if a mind is not intellectually able to understand the machinery of the social and yet desperately seeks to be something that is not represented solely by the identity thrust on it by the social, then paranoia and other forms of mental disturbance become understandable, ranging, in the paranoid case, from the rigid conspiracy theory of the half-socialised to complete break-down. Lacan is most interested in what he thinks of as narcissism (perhaps because he identifies with it deep down) but there is a fine line here between the narcissism of the maladapted and the sensible narcissism of non-sociopathic self development on the one hand and the need to collaborate and co-operate in a complex society and the loss of self in total socialisation on the other.

And how does this fit with our introductory comments about knowing other minds in the past? Only that, when trying to understand how other past minds might have thought, the relationship between the complexity of the social and the individual and the amount of self awareness permitted in analysing the social in order to assert the individual claim against the social become relevant. To say that minds were like ours in the past is both probably true and probably false (though unknowable). Probably true is that the basic substrate of the mind is biologically similar (for simple evolutionary reasons) across vast tracts of time and probably false because that substrate is dealing with its own dialectical relationship with exponentially increasing social complexity and increasing awareness, through communications, of not only the fact of the complexity but the contingency of the complexity. Existential anxiety is thus not only a matter of death (as we have from the classical existentialists) but of the problem of social complexity and the death of social stability - of uncertainty in the relationship between the individual and the world.

Of course, while there is still room for madness today, there is less room for attributing madness simply to not being adequately socialised. So, for example, being homosexual is no longer seen as a deviation (from a norm), someone who hears voice is no longer automatically seen as insane and someone is no longer requiring treatment for saying they are a woman trapped in a man's body. Attitudes to these things represent material differences in 'what it is like to be a human being' and until we know what people in the past actually thought of such things at the micro-level of 'ordinary people' who did not write texts and did not use texts in elite contexts, we simply have to start admitting that we really do not know how past minds worked. We scarcely know how our own minds work.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

For Discussion - Ten Preliminary Propositions for Living Decently

I have never liked commandments, never accepted the claims of authority but only those of evidence-based persuasion or my own assessment of the situation but, given that we are unconsciously fixed in our social condition by commandments created in the Iron Age for an Iron Age order, what alternative suggestions might we have.

These ten suggestions are here for discussion only - not provided on high by a charismatic man with horns on his head but simply as attempts at creating codes of common decency to challenge those of inherited traditionalist oppression whether by Popes or Kings.

1. Your rights exist only to the degree that you respect the rights of others. Rights are for all or for none. Otherwise, a demand for rights is no more than a tool or a weapon in a struggle for power. The primary right is always the right to autonomy and self-determination. The good society merely attempts to give meaning to the equalisation for all of that primary right.

2. Live beyond inherited or socially given constructions of identity based on gender, sexual orientation, claimed ethnicity, social status or class. It is not that all are equal or can be made equal within the commonwealth but the first choice of who you are should be yours and not others. To accept a fixed identity that was not freely chosen by yourself with full information to hand is to oppress oneself.

3. A child is your responsibility if you make one. This means their health, their education and their happiness. If you bring a child into your household by whatever means or join a household with children, you take on this duty for them as if they were your own. This duty extends to the maintenance of the household with others with the same duty of care but it does not mean submission to them.You have not abandoned the primary right and can withdraw if your good will is abused.

4. No-one is a burden to society. Everyone is society whether they like it or not. This does not mean society cannot have some practical expectations - that it does not pay for the free rider or expect that each person does his or her utmost to be a strong and free agent - but the starting point is that a person cannot be bullied into freedom but only encouraged or even, in hard cases, managed into freedom.

5. No belief justifies violating the rights of others and if it does, then you are an enemy of the commonwealth. This applies to every organised religion, ideology or personal opinion. Since the primary right is the right to autonomy and self determination, all authoritarians are enemies of the people. This is not an argument against freely chosen traditionalism within a free society but it is an argument against imposing traditionalism on others - including and especially children.

6. Live life to the full on this earth but with sincerity in words, deeds and love against the unwarranted claims of others so that heaven is made potential, if rarely actual, in each day of a life lived fully. Expect nothing after death.

7. Try and avoid becoming part of the mass unless for brief communal pleasures. The theatre, the football match and the orgy are one thing, immersion into movements, belief systems and totalising communities are another. Neither peers nor the deciders of fashion can tell you who you are and your uniqueness is your greatest contribution to the social.

8. Defend yourself and your property but leave justice and punishment to the commonwealth. If the commonwealth is unjust, make sure you participate in making it just by giving a strong opinion and organising to remove injustice when it becomes intolerable. The magistrates rule by no right other than our agreement to their administration of justice and may be disposed of if they fail at any time. This right of resistance is absolute no matter what the forms or claims of the governing class - the question is only whether resistance can succeed or not against often superior forces.

9. If you cannot treat the social with respect even if it is weak or inadequate, walk away from it but don't despise it. It has its reasons and its purposes - to maintain order without which freedom cannot exist, to defend against predators and so on. To despise the social is to despise humanity - which is fine except that none of us can escape being human ... tragically perhaps but that is how it is.

10. Do everything you desire but harm no-one in doing it. There is no need to be over-protective of others at one's own expense but any strategy that constrains their self-creation or takes no account of their vulnerabilities as much as your self creation and vulnerabilities is an evil strategy. All relationships are constant negotiations between free individuals so society's interest is limited to creating the conditions for freedom and restoring balance when an evident oppression takes place. Let love drive us but a love beholden to science, reason and respect for the unconscious animal within us all.

You might class this as a conservative libertarianism with social-radical characteristics in the implicit call for active social intervention to equalise the primary right to autonomy and explicit acceptance of the right of resistance to incompetent and malicious authority.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Understanding Americans - Some Key Texts

The cultured English mind, until recently, could be defined as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Bunyan, the Romantic Poets, the English Novel and the War Poets with Kipling, Sherlock Holmes and HG Wells added to taste. But Americans are not Englishman. Although there is a common linguistic culture and both cultures are being transformed radically by the internet-driven shift from word to image, there is a cultural continuity in liberal America that outsiders need to understand before they accept or contest it.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
There are key texts that emerged from within American culture and took hold of the American imagination in a way that helped define this curious half-idealistic empire. Political texts such as the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address and general journalism and propaganda (which is the origin of the Federalist Papers) are taken as read. Similarly, we are speaking mostly of language although we include three films in our mini-canon.

Like all cultures, American culture is multi-faceted. Every generation produces its unique masterpieces and its defining forms but what we are interested in are the pivotal points where an entire culture shifts direction rather than sanctify some text which liberates or changes just a component of it. In that context, I suggest that there are three key phases in the formation of the American liberal mind which must be seen in the context both of official ideology (the political texts) and an equally important 'intellectual silence' from the conservative Right, seen as anti-intellectual by liberals but also representative of a small town and conservative culture of doing and believing.

The First Phase: The 1850s - Setting the Texts for the Cultural War Against The South

The surge of creative writing in this period (we must not forget the genre-creating work earlier of Poe) may now be seen as a concentrated revolt against puritan authority that was inherited from, but out of time with, English mores of 150 years previously - not in the direction of European materialism (Marx) and existentialism (Kierkegaard) but towards transcendentalism.

This is the point at which the Northern (but not the Southern) culture of the United States moves from being a dialectical variant of European culture into something new and distinctive. It is the point at which American idealism and commitment to absolute moral values turns from aspirational political theory into cultural reality.We may take the major texts, read in schools later, as these five:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Scarlet Letter (1850): Questions are raised about communitarian authority.
  • Herman Melville - Moby-Dick, or The Whale (1851): The intensity of questions of good and evil.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe - Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852): Sentimentalism in the cause of the good.
  • Henry David Thoreau - Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854): American individualism bonds with the land and with the ideal.
  • Walt Whitman - Leaves of Grass (1855): The poetic lauding of American earthiness

This immense flourishing of literature on the US East Coast in scarcely half a decade represented an America that was still an offshoot of British culture but that now asserted a distinctive urban liberal and democratic mentality that, in parts, and mostly unintended, helped to fuel the moral fervour behind a bloody war of conquest that was to be touted as a war of liberation after the fact.

This culture was later to invert itself somewhat into philosophical pragmatism as a result of horror at that war (as ably outlined by Louis Menand in 'The Metaphysical Club') and react against populist enthusiasm for moral absolutes but both the belief in force as agent of moral right and a measured antinomian belief in justice and rights over the forms of law has been a persistent value that drives American political action at home and overseas even today.

The Second Phase - From The Late Nineteenth Century to The Mid-Twentieth Century - Understanding & Reforming The Imperium

The first phase was a concentrated burst of generational energy based on an idealistic response to imposed authority from above. It ended in a brutal war that was pursued, albeit not always idealistically in practice, increasingly for 'moral' ends as it moved forward.

Henry James
The next phase is a coming to terms with the expansionary but increasingly anomic ever-expanding federal state that emerged from the crisis. It consisted of two  parts - a mainstream concern with American exceptionalism and how to make it moral, increasingly through a progressive discourse, and an attempt in relation to the South to include a still-alien culture in the whole.

Again, the critiques of capitalism in America are wholly unlike that in Europe. In Europe, there is a war against capitalism as a fundamental socially organising concept from both the Catholic or Fascist Right and the Socialist Left but, in the US, progressives are not arguing against capitalism but against 'bad' capitalism, against monopolies and for smallholders and the 'little man'. The attitude is more one of observation for reform than rage for revolution.

The texts to be read in schools today tell us that, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the US is not all that it could be in the eyes of thinking liberal men.

It is flawed but it is exceptional and it could be better by returning to its original intentions, the intentions, in a strange piece of patriarchal conservatism, of the Founding Fathers or the free-born settler. This is a liberalism that might be considered very conservative and nostalgic in Europe:

  • Henry James - Works (1871-1911): Anglo-American subtleties and differences
  • Mark Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Fin (1884): A nostalgia for freedom
  • Frank Norris - The Octopus (1901): The progressive critique of big business
  • Sinclair Lewis - Main Street (1921): The dead weight of small town America
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby (1925): The corruption under the glitter
  • Norman Mailer - The Naked & The Dead (1948): Americans at war

The Southern Response

The 'Southern Response' is not so much a response by the South, which is a cultural back-water, but about the South. A choice is made in the early twentieth century not to integrate the black people who live there and in the Northern cities but to mythologise the culture romantically as a lost cause, a cavalier planter culture beaten (as they should have been even in Marxist theory) by kinder bourgeois roundheads. In doing so, the South is pickled in aspic in order to be integrated into Yankeedom while remaining segregated at home:

It is no accident that the process is book-ended by two major block-busting films. The first rewrites the civil war as a war of resistance on the lines of other doomed tales of resistance much loved by Anglo-Saxons - from Hereward the Wake onwards - and the second shows the romantic but wrong culture of the feudal South as ultimately ill-fitted to the modern world: 'frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!'

Distracted first by war and reconstruction, the nation-creating liberal texts of this middle phase displace resentments in the defeated South and divert a troubled national liberal culture, confused by its own victories at times, into hand-maiden to a State that could ambiguously be an agent for or against the people.

The Third Phase - The Sixties - The Creation of the New Liberal Mind: Fear, Anger & Guilt

The final phase is the one most of us are familiar with. Like the 1850s, it represents a point of concentrated energy that shifts the ground within the culture, creating the Democrat Party of today and the resentments of small-town conservatism that fuel Republican revolts. The texts below cover the three key psychological developments that rule liberal thinking today - environmentalism, feminism and a passion for indigenous movements as somehow more pure than urban man. These are three centres of contemporary radical thinking in politics and the media.

Notice that the works of sexual and 'negro' liberation - though important to those communities - are not on the list because these were primarily matters of direct action and not texts, though the texts were many. And we have two women on the list for the first time - third phase liberalism is increasingly driven by women and women's values to the extent that the crisis of support emerging today lies in the alienation of working class men who could be taken for granted in the first two phases as supportive of their bourgeois betters' aspirations for rights and reform.

Rachel Carson
And there is one film on the list that has almost been forgotten now but, at the time, brought the message of Dee Brown about forgotten history into exceptionally gory focus for a mass population:

  • Rachel Carson - Silent Spring (1962): An environmentalist ur-text
  • Betty Friedan - The Feminist Mystique (1963): Hardline quasi-Marxist introduction to feminism
  • Paul Ehrlich - The Population Bomb (1968): Existential panic over scarce resources
  • Dee Brown - Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1970): Guilt at the genocide of the indigenes
  • Film - Soldier Blue (1970)

The sixties are rightly regarded as a cultural watershed. These types of text and film helped to create a new liberal ideology of rights (especially for women and then for a range of other identity groups based on gender and orientation), imperial guilt and existential fear that drove the babyboomer political project and the opposing conservative communitarian reaction to contest each other right up until the age of the internet.

For those who have not spent time in the American school system (as I have) and are puzzled by the American liberal response to the world, a world which such liberals persist in not trying to understand in its complexity, these three phases may help comprehension of what they are dealing with.

The first phase gives us a genuinely liberal moral absolutism and sentimentality that the world is not what it should be and can be put right by individual endeavour and sentimental good will.

The second long phase shows a determined commitment to mythologising history in order to make things right, a progressive optimism that struggle will return the world to what it should have been if there had been no 'fall' and periodic, latterly apocalyptic, despair at the world as it is.

The last phase focuses on the moral wrongs that are to be found everywhere - in the world as a whole and not just the american world - and that our environment, equality and protection of the vulnerable are 'causes' where, perhaps, facts are not the issue but the will to change things ... which brings us back to the impetus behind the transcendentalism of the 1850s.

And the rest, as they say, is history ...