Friday, 29 May 2015

Reflections on Personal Identity

The common Western idea of personal identity has depended on continuity of memory since John Locke and is a central element in English individualism. This was contrasted with ‘mere’ bodily continuity, with mind and body firmly separated, which was assisted by another notion – that mind was associated with a ‘soul’ which had some being or continuity beyond the body after it had died (or even outside the body, while the latter was still functioning separately, in some schools of thought).

This idea of a continuity beyond death, based on a separation of body and mind, is still held by many people as a matter of faith. It gives psychological comfort to some but it has not been demonstrated as ‘true’ (scientifically probable). It is a possibilian concept. Continuity of memory, however, is a different kettle of fish. Since Locke’s day, we have seen ‘scientific’, certainly suggestive theoretical, evidence that conscious memory, accumulated in layers of perception and constantly constructing the ‘self’, is only a small part of the story.

We have Freud’s postulate of the unconscious to contend with but also growing evidence that the historic genetically constructed structures of the brain construct both our perceptions and the selection and holding of those perceptions in such a way that memory becomes a very slippery matter in its relation to what actually happened even in the moments before it is formed. Memory is not just the accumulation of perceptions into a form of identity but the unwitting selection of perceptions, one that relies on discontinuities, redrafts and revisions that are built-in to the ‘person’ by their genetic and experiential history.

There may be an inability to perceive some things or a determination to forget in the context of trauma or some other need. If personal identity is memory then that personal identity is not smoothly constructed in many cases but is a partly wilful and partly unconscious creation which involves as much forgetting as remembering. This is not incompatible with, say, the metaphysics of Nietzsche to the effect that we can be nothing other than we are and that we are doomed to repeat ourselves eternally.

The ‘will to power’ (in his sense) of an organism that integrates body and mind into a being that is also integrated into raw existence can easily accommodate the idea that we are not conscious of the discontinuities as well as conscious of the apparent continuities in our identity. Indeed, the mix of conscious and wilful (or apparently so) change in ourselves with part-conscious (or illusory) and with unconscious (or biological or environmental) changes to the forms by which our perception is structured is in greater accord with Nietzsche’s existentialism than with Locke’s gentlemanly English liberalism.

Modern psychologists are only the professional end of a truth universally recognised by most of us who can see the world in a critical way – that memory is as often false as not and so, by extension, that our personal identities are ‘false’ constructions that: a) depend on our body’s and earlier mind’s determination of what should be perceived and then held for future use; and b) are what that same mind should unconsciously choose to forget or bury deep in the process of creating the present which we can then call our ‘self’ at any one time.

Memory, in short, is not all that personal identity is but is only its expression to our consciousness. Placing the possibility of existence beyond the body to one side, our personal identity may be a memory at each point in our life but that memory is possibly false and our personal identity is probably false if we believe it to be true without further questioning. By a paradox, if we know and believe our memory and identity to be ‘false’, it becomes more ‘true’ (yes, truth can be relative here) because the entry of the thought of a false memory as possibility, even probability under certain conditions, gives us the opportunity to choose to be ‘critical’, that is either to accept our personal identity as ‘true’ for us in its falsity as an act of will and freedom (insofar as we can ever be free) or to investigate, critically, what may be false in order to make ourselves more ‘true’.

We are not valuing the ‘true’ here as the ‘good’ – being ‘true’ is merely defined as according with objective or at least scientifically validated reality. Being in accord with objective reality has no necessary relationship in itself with the value of ‘good’ but that is another debate.  Personal identity, in fact, is never anything other than ‘true’ in value terms because it is ‘true’ to the person that has that identity. The ‘falsity’ arises only when the person perceives a ‘falsity’ themselves in what they had held to be true, hence the argument in this note – that realisation of ‘falsity’ requires a new ‘truth’ or new identity formulation even if this is a reaffirmation of the ‘falsity’ as ‘truth’. In this way, once we understand that Locke’s assertion that personal identity is memory is to be taken as a truism of sorts, but one without much relationship to the objective truth of our condition in the world – that is, that ‘false memory’ means ‘false identity’ in any terms that are not totally subjective to the person and so represents more or less of a disconnect between persons and their world – then we can rethink that position in the world

This must generally result in one of three responses – denial, conscious reaffirmation of the given or critical investigation of the self.  Let us pause here and say that no value judgement can be ascribed to any of these responses. The denial that a person is anything other than memory, even if the memory (say) includes the assertion that the person was once Emperor of France when all the external evidence points to this not being case, is a legitimate human response to their condition in the world.

The assertion that the historic world leader and this person who believes themselves to be (wrongly) that past world leader are different in personal identity terms just because one accords with objective reality and one does not is merely a matter of the degree by which the identity is practically adaptive to the world. All those unaware of their ‘falsity’ have more in common, mad or not, than any of them do with those who are aware of it. Madness and 'inauthenticity' (to use an older and rather value-ridden existentialist term) are far from identical however. 'Inauthenticity' may be a necessary condition for personal survival in the world as it is constructed. Madness is a poor way of physically surviving in the world outside the most caring of welfare states, communities, tribes or families.

Each personal identity in its particular case of unawareness has been constructed to function for that person but both cases, madness and 'inauthenticity', have in common the fact that neither is aware of their condition or, until having become or made aware of it, are able to treat that condition critically. The thought experiment here is of the man who chooses madness in response to conditions and becomes mad - is this possible?  Did Nietzsche do this? Was this his genius? Human society, on the other hand, could probably not function easily without the vast majority of persons not questioning their condition for most of the time. Unquestioning is a necessary element in the construction of the social.

Left critics of the workings of society have been fully aware of this for some time, hence their frustrated assertion of the need to act to raise consciousness in order to effect change because, left to themselves, most people would accept existing conditions as true and construct their personal identities precisely to fit their environment. These people become their world – cogs perhaps but also able to survive where those who question might end up in camps or penury. It is the source of the instinctive conservatism of the mass of the population and the difficulty behind attempts to effect change even when all logic points to it.

But being or becoming aware of the fact that our personal identities are ‘false’ to the degree that our memories are false because we are our memories (albeit embedded first in a body with its memory and a society with its collective memory) creates only persons who are different not better and the uncovering of this truth about identity does not necessarily result in more than marginal change. The conservatism of society is often very logical – just as are the narratives of the great movements that challenge this conservatism.

Our bodies, meanwhile, are repositories of unconscious material memory. Their genetic component (without going down the route of the collective unconscious) means that a proportion of that memory exists from before the actual creation of that body. Societies too are repositories of collective memory. The habits and instincts of persons are easy to transfer from one community to another (certainly under conditions of modernisation) but also respond (without further self-questioning thought) to the ‘norms’ of a particular time and place which then impact on the formation of memory and so identity. Memory is constructed out of continuous socialisation and the relationship between memory and social identity is at the heart of 'tradition'.

To challenge one’s own personal identity may often involve challenging one’s own body image and capabilities, the ‘norms’ of society and the representation of oneself in society – it might even suggest radical action: gender change, migration, abandonment of tribe or faith (or acquisition of one).  The point is that knowing that one’s personal identity as a construct of false memory does not necessarily predispose someone to radical rather than conservative actions.

It enables radical choice, that is true, but radical choices, if based on unconscious reaction to the tension between society and material circumstances and ‘true will’ can be far from conscious. They may derive from a reaction to memory that makes them no more authentic than those of the conservative mind set who determines on full acceptance of his or her condition without further thought. Awareness that memory and so identity can be explored and reconfigured is a-political and even a-social.

The only virtue of awareness is that it does not rely on an unconscious balancing of mind, body and society (which clearly creates contentment for some but not others) but recognises that, where the mind is not in accord with body or society and where personal identity is not in line with something approaching ‘true will’, the person, in that moment of recognition, can make choices and that those choices involve the management of perceptions and the investigation of memory (or the abandonment of acceptance of memories as valid in the rejection of beliefs) in order to realign a person and the conditions of their existence.

In the case of beliefs, memory is certainly slippery. To believe something is a core element in personal identity and the shift of a belief from a present state to a memory of what was once believed represents a major shift of identity in itself. Chaos Magicians exploit this in order to play with their own identities in a way that strikes the vast majority of humanity as wasteful and absurd but these are not idle thought experiments in coming to a view on the stability of identity in our species.

So Locke is, of course, correct that our identity does rely on memory but we must recognise now that memory is constructed and false more often than not so that our personal identities are as much constructs of our bodies and society as of our conscious will and actual experience. Although this is true, this is not an excuse for a valuation of some minds as better than others just because of their awareness of this falseness of identity because no identity can ever be anything but false in an absolute sense. Nor can we necessarily draw the extreme conclusion that we have no selves (which is an entirely different argument, if currently fashionable one, to criticise another day).

Having an identity that is true to itself is still having an identity that is constructed or that has been constructed out of perceptions that can never tell the whole story about external reality (not to mention our ignorance of other minds and the workings of a society where so little can be observed directly by the subject).  An identity expresses the needs at any one time of a person who is made up of a mind set in a body constrained by social and technological reality. Thus, there is never any absolute freedom but nor is there any requirement for total determination of circumstances.

Liberation is merely a cast of mind, a calibration of society, body and mind and so a calibration of perception, of memory and of identity. The constant struggle between the psychological and physical continuity theories of identity thus rather misses the point. What might be better considered is a theory of constant discontinuities in which a body (and a society) and a mind with only apparent continuity are both required but in which the ‘normal’ integration of the two can be discontinued without either mind or body ceasing to have some ‘memory’ of itself.

A body without a mind is still the body of the person and can be reactivated as such under certain conditions (as after a coma) and that body would influence a new mind that entered it through its biology and brain structure. Perceptions and capabilities would change identity – we only have to consider the male/female difference and the effects on a mind with memories of another gender in a body swap to know how identity would adjust with biology. Continuity perhaps but also a recasting of memory to fit biology would be likely.

A mind might be reloaded or transferred or duplicated in a machine or another body but, from that point, the new material conditions would create new ways of perceiving and thought that would create a separate identity from any identical mental clone in another body, whilst still showing continuities with the past through inherited shared memory. In the memory clone case, each ‘person’ has a separate identity based on possibly small changes in material circumstance despite shared memories – reproducing the ‘I’m Sharon but a different Sharon’ problem of Battlestar Galactica.

Identity is not fixed but changes and shifts in relation to the environment. It is fraught with discontinuities even when simplified down to one mind in one body. The recognition of this complexity should make the psychological-physical debate redundant. It should also help us to be suspicious of the truth-claims made about ourselves by ourselves and by all other persons of themselves and create a scepticism about claims that any single mind can have the answer to any social problem without the help of other minds or that any person can have the ultimate solution, if there is one, to one’s own problems except oneself.

Friday, 22 May 2015

On Pole Dancers and Others ...

My last blog posting on the May 13th Conway Hall Debate on Sex Work reminded me of a piece I wrote for Facebook connections five years ago and not published more widely at the time. I reproduce it here with my usual technique of adding notes where I have something to add or I have changed my mind.

May Day 2010

Some weeks ago, there was a thread debate on feminism and I was asked to reproduce, in a more considered format, the general thrust of my argument. The origin was a difference of opinion, largely amongst women, on sex-positivity and its role in liberating women - some might say from the historic dominance of men and others might say from their own self-imposed and inherited limitations in the face of the world.

Could a pole dancer be more fulfilled than a woman who had taken up the law? Not a silly question when a political lawyer, Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of New Labour, has declared war, according to the Times of September 18th, [1] on the culture of corporate entertainment linked to lapdancing clubs.

Pole Dancing & Physical Intelligence

Even a cursory review of the 2010 US Pole Dancing championship's video shows women at the peak of physical performance to the extent that we might say that these women were showing levels of physical intelligence that easily matched the legal intelligence of Ms. Harman. [2]  One female respondent [3] noted that pole dancing itself isn't very sensual --- but I am in awe of the strength and control these dancers have over their bodies. Precisely. I was just immensely impressed with the strength and assuredness ... She added:

I arranged for a group of my girlfriends to do a pole dancing workshop a few weeks back (all of us self-described feminists - and most actively involved with woman's rights movements ... and they all found it an incredibly enriching (albeit somewhat painful) and liberating experience. I think the assumption is that its done by women for men. False. Unless of course that is your choice. It certainly wasn't any of ours."

It is not just poledancing that has been taken up by sex-positive women. There is also the capture of burlesque by arty girly girls for girls and the global girl power of belly dancing.

Progressive Feminists Just Don't Get It

But some progressive feminists just don't get it - you take what was a male demand and subvert it into female choice and empowerment and, above all, sheer fun. The splits, of course, are something that no man can do safely and not end up with a squeaky voice. All men are astonished and not a little envious at this ability ... c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas sexe. But even if it was 'sex' - what is really so very wrong with that if it is consensual and non-exploitative or at least no more exploitative than any other activity in late capitalist society. If men and women mutually enjoy and play with forms of 'objectification', then why not?

Impressive in skill terms, pole dancing always get this faint sense of censoriousness from some feminists ... someone has 'issues' and it ain't me or my sex-positive female friends. It is always a woman's right to choose and that, in my view, includes a choice between stacking shelves in a supermarket and expressing physical intelligence before an appreciative audience ... the progressive feminist aesthetic must not be imposed on others, men or women.

The Psychology Of The Industry

Now, let's take the view of another woman on the thread ...

... you'd be surprised how many of those panty stuffing bills can add up by end of the night. You won't get rich, but you'll make more than you would answering some dentist's phone and filing his insurance claims. And you get to drink and stare at hot naked chicks all night. lol I've had far worse McJobs ...

Something to consider: there is a difference between athletic displays of pole dancing in a "non-sexualized" context outside of a stripclub environment [...] and how it's rendered in a club.

In a club, there is a lot more raw sexuality being generated from the dancers and the patrons. These currents are both harmonious and chaotic, given that so many different psychologies are bringing their lot to the table. It keeps things interesting.

There is also tons of pseudo sexual posturing and sheer hubris, in place of (or along with) technical skill. When it's done properly, by reasonably well integrated people, it's sensual and 'sexual'.... And if anyone is left feeling a bit sheepish, it's usually the onlookers. ;)

'Progressives' always look for the worst cases of exploitation and then extrapolate backwards to limit freedoms for the rest of society ... like the prohibitionists in America worked back from the drunkeness and corruption of Tammany Hall in New York and banning drink for everyone, resulting, unintentionally in the creation of American organised crime as a political force.

More Positive Approaches

Referring to, say, conditions in, say, Uzbekistan [4] is no help in referring to conditions in London or San Francisco. On the contrary, the Uzbek case also argues for economic development, regulation and normalisation, certainly the end of stigmatisation within the sex industry. The positive policy aim should be to ensure that maximum labour value is transferred to performers/workers rather than the capitalists and that the supply of sexual services (and drugs and risk games such as gambling) is in the hands of legitimate business and not organised crime.

Apart from anything else, the 'respectable' (actually rather self-centred) middle class' refusal to understand how human drives and wants must and can be met legitimately permits the large-scale accumulation of capital by organised crime. This eventually destabilises their sweet cosy world of armchair disapproval. Mexico, for example, is about to plunge into an anarcho-criminal civil war for precisely this reason [5]. I would not fancy being a 'respectable' bourgeois when that happens.

My objection to aggressive policy progressives (especially a certain sort of feminist who claims to speak without authority for all women) is that they are not merely unpleasant and authoritarian but profoundly and deeply stupid.

The Real Rights Of Non-Respectable Women

Men often hold back from comment out of a culturally determined fear of feminist reproach (I do not) and it is women themselves who come slugging back to assert their rights to make their own choices and exploit legitimately the drives and wants of men. In this context, it is women who are being deprived of the right to do what male-dominated business does in exploiting the desire and wants of women for retail therapy and cosmetic improvement. The 1970s feminists rightly demanded that women's desire to look good should not be dictated by male requirements.

Economic liberation has, nevertheless, increased fashionable and cosmetic expenditure because it is women who want to look and feel good for themselves and each other (men really don't notice quite as much as they would think). Same with sexuality - 'progressive' feminists consider all sexual objectification and performance as patriarchal. They are idiots.

Sexual Game Play

Many women, maybe most women when liberated, love sexual objectification and performance (by men for their pleasure as well) so long as they are in control of the image and the play, including games of submission and domination that are safe, equal and consensual. Many feminists are thus not feminists at all, just a-sexual or repressed or ideologically tormented or filled with 'ressentiment' or unable to play the game and don't want others to either. But it is still their right to be as they are.

My only objection is the role that they play in public policy as 'respectable' but ignorant oppressors of others, male and female, in close alliance with male moralists [6] and, dare I say it, sexual neurotics and wimps.  Most educated men have more than adapted to this new game play - the best of them play as equals, the weakest simply act as pawns shelling out their cash for temporary if necessary gratification.

The liberatory process now requires that men and women understand and respect each other's natures and adapt without abuse or exploitation in their personal relations and, if necessary, accepting mutual exploitation on equal terms with full information. Here is the place to refer to Elizabeth Pisani's TED lecture on sexuality and health care - a brilliant exposition of a scientific approach to human rationality - the brief interview with the Indonesian transgender prostitute captures the point perfectly. Sexual services are rational on all sides.

The analysis by my friend (above) of what actually goes on in a Western 'establishment' is spot on. There is a sort of controlled sub-Dionysiac erotic tension that is just play-acting in which both sides get something out of the exchange. Included in this exchange is a powerful sense of domination from the performing side over men in a position of unfulfilled desire - the classic 'tease', only controlled and within bounds. Burlesque once had the same function.

There is a type of person who cannot comprehend the powerful cathartic effect on this play-acting which is certainly not orgiastic, is a game between moral equals, is carefully calibrated and which ends when the performance ends. Men are still often pigs but in real life far more than in the theatre. Personally, I don't get it 'in situ' but then the theatre to me is a relatively uninteresting experience. I am not one ever to suspend disbelief. My reaction is the simple pleasure of observation without any sense of power or control on either side, an erotic voyeurism best appreciated without the audience.

I much prefer a conversation with the person and, if it leads to consensual pleasures, they are, for me, non-commercial. I sell only my alleged charm and genuine interest. I buy with that currency only appreciation and the sensuality towards which a conversation may lead. I truly love and like women even when they mystify and confuse me. I would rather spend my evenings listening to women talk than getting my pleasures from a gang of men watching but not participating in sports or the strip. But then I always was a bit different :-)

The Criminalisation of Pleasure

Some women once earned substantial sums and gained significant social respect in underworld societies through the sex industry before progressives and fundamentalists began to undermine the economic base of that community in the 1920s and 1930s in America. Although this began with Comstock and was represented by the Hays Code's deadening effect in a later period, puritanism just drove women underground, lowering pay levels and increasing abuse and exploitation and control of the 'trade' by larger-scale criminal enterprises.

The war on sexuality is a sociopathic war, an exploitative war against the human spirit and, above all, a war on the weak by the 'respectable'. Our biggest child abuse scandal is not in lap-dancing clubs but inside the Roman Catholic Church amongst 'Christians'. Since the 1970s, the emergence of soft visual 'porn', the feminisation of burlesque, stripping as a legitimate business and pole and lap dancing has created a middle way. Good business ensures [7] that the girls are protected (and not as well as they would be if they were recognised and unionised instead of stigmatised) as the best means of getting some men to pay for the yachts of other men through indulging their pleasures and weakness.

The 'harder' end of the industry has a much tougher time now as a result - the internet 'gives away' much material and the new 'soft' industries give outlets for beautiful women with no other prospects the chance to make money without actually selling use of body. Of course, they may choose to sell direct sex and there are still serious issues to do with exploitation but those who do know what they are doing can do so at higher prices with more protection.

The Price of Stigma

Intelligent regulation and enforcement would help stabilise wages but only where the industry is not stigmatised, staffed with migrants and pushed underground under the patronage of criminals corruptly suborning law enforcement, all thanks to the 'respectable' society of feminism and christian moralism. Again, the problem is one of economics, stigma and idiocy ... there is a lot of research that is inconvenient to progressives and feminists on this. There is not only Pisani's common sense approach.  Laura Maria Augustin's book on 'Sex at the Margins' looks set to demonstrate what most researchers know - that the sex trade represents rational choice in a world of globalisation and poverty.

Other British research is conveniently never referred to by organisations like the Fawcett Society when they slip from campaigning (rightly) on equal pay and rights into feminist ideology on matters of sexuality. My sex-positive friend added in my defence as the thread progressed that:

I think Tim (and I know I can say this for myself) would like to see women and men culturally and socially situated where they are being nurtured in all ways that will produce the healthiest and happiest people ...

...who are truly free to make the choices that will please them, armed with the basics of educations, options for earning decent livings.

I agree with her. She added that we were in a time of radical cultural flux:

People are experimenting with different religions than the ones they were raised, or not raised to adhere to. The sexual revolution has it's most recent incarnation in the gay rights movement, which is in full swing, and is no small challenge.

Communication has provided the means for "regular" people to conduct intelligence gathering, which has resulted in the Catholic Church, for instance, being cornered on their numerous, planet wide, long standing pattern of child abuse.

[...] In any thriving society, the able help the able to thrive and conquer. That which is crumbling and falling is in that condition for a reason, and (under many circumstances) should be allowed to continue to deteriorate. I do not mean people. I mean conditions.

[...] on the subject of exploitation. Some of the women you would meet in that industry who have the biggest personal problems would not argue the case that they were being exploited.

In fact, they'd very proudly tell you that they were the exploiters, and having been closer to some of them than I'd ever like to be again, I can confirm that some deeply antisocial personalities who, like other criminal types, are outcast by personality default from "normal' society, wind up in sex work.

So much for the myth of the "sad, forlorn hooker with a heart of gold." I've never met one. They are survivors. And survivors tend to be grazing at the low end of the human spectrum.

They are not living in any sort of constructive way, and they don't want anyone else to be either. Soul crushed people. They get fired a lot, even from strip clubs. ;)

A Hard Realism Required

That hard realism is part of the point. The 'survivor' has a distinctive psychology, one that passes by the armchair ideologist and the theoretician, incomprehensible to the comfortable lives of the middle class winner whose own resentments underpin an essential cruelty towards those struggling below them. The question [8] often is: what are we going to do with the sociopath?. The authoritarian instinct is to contain or militarise, the progressive is to pretend that they do not exist or that they can be 'reformed'.

But there is no evidence that sociopathy can be fully contained or reformed out of society (it even has species-survival benefits) - and it certainly needs to be recognised. This fact really upsets liberals who persist in thinking that 'bad behaviour' can be corrected through imposed love and education. Sociopathy and other inconvenient behaviours (like sexual enthusiasm, gambling, addiction, drugs and so on) need to be noticed as real (the first failing of 'nice' society) and then engaged with and socialised.

Only then can we contain harm, not through idiot prohibitionism or burdensome and moralising regulation but through practical and rational incentive-based policy, much as Pisani suggests. This seems to be impossible for the limited brains of politicians, churchmen or liberal ideologists to comprehend. The middle class liberal often cannot face the extremity of evil to be found in the world. So they cannot punish serious harm. Serious sociopathy is just 'understood' and killers roam the streets within a few years of acts that cripple and destroy the lives of others.

It is axiomatic, for example, to these 'wets' that the death penalty is always and absolutely wrong. Those on the margin have no such illusions. They know there are tolerance boundaries and they set them firmly. For the liberal, there is no margin because of the silly belief in absolute equality and in redemption - stupid inheritances from Christian theory - and a genuine fear of 'struggle', the necessity for persons to make mistakes, take risks, gamble, to get out of Hell and into the 'Community'.

Most people's experience of Hell is romanticised and mediatised through film and television. It is sanitised through the portrayal of extreme horrors when the reality is far more grinding than anything these 'nice' people can contemplate. The high point of this romanticisation of Hell is that filmic work of genius Sin City where the heroisation of Hell is cathartic and given an almost Soviet realist feel by the end. It is not like that.

It is about hundreds of thousands of people living in mental states that require drugs, who seek transcendence through risk and where sexuality is part currency, part creation of identity. My point is terribly simple - these people are people. They are not objects [9]. Their struggle has to be respected. They also have to be shown routes that they can take out of Hell. They need protection from their own worst cases - the exploiters, the abusers, the killers, the authorities' own corrupt agents in the field. It is not sexual objectification that is the crime but liberal objectification of persons!

What Is To Be Done

The first stage is to remove stigma, accept a greater degree of risk in society, integrate. The second stage is to regulate, educate and guide. But the second stage is dependent on the first - it depends on risky and sociopathic behaviour being out in the open, observed, with boundaries drawn that are realistic and not based on the latest idiot contribution of anal obsessives in the health and safety culture. If it was good enough for Christ to include hookers in his Heaven, it is good enough for us to have a drink with a lap-dancing single mum who is making a rational economic choice in working in a club.

Furthermore, she might get to enjoy her work and turn a necessity into an art, an affirmation that she can do some things well on her terms and can accumulate her small bit of capital to open up her own shop, cafe or dance school (as one bright lapdancer I met clearly intended). This woman (so she said) went to a major charitable trust(perhaps naively) and asked for the same sort of help that they give freely to young toughs in Lewisham but was rejected. Why? Was it because it was helping a young woman move from lapdancing to owning a dance studio, making best use of her physical intelligence (and a lot more intelligence than that, much more than I have experienced amongst the cliche-spouting university-educated hausfrauen of Middle Islington)?

Maybe not. Perhaps the Business Plan was just not good enough. But I suspect that she was stigmatised - our whole culture is stigmatising the rational choices of working class and vulnerable women because it cannot face the truth that, out there, life is not only not perfect, it is not perfectible.

Standing Up To The Bien-Pensants

If 'progressives' were truly serious about climate change, they would raise petrol and airline ticket prices to astronomical levels. If they were serious about 'exploitation' they would undertake a massive tax-based redistribution of capital. Instead they tinker at the people's expense. Life is a struggle but struggle is good and many of these strugglers do, eventually, not end up in the gutter but with good and productive lives. There is the instructive tale of the Russ Meyer starlet who became a grade school teacher and spent her life fearing that her past would be exposed. When it was, it was no great deal - she was a good teacher. That's all we need to know in common humanity.

So why make it so difficult for these people? Why not encourage them to see their lives as way stations to something better instead of marginalised holding pens for those who have no voice. Where were these 'liberals' and churchmen when they were first abused? Nowhere. They have no right to judge. Only these women have rights. Any decent feminist would respect them and their choices - and only seek to get them out on their terms from under the heel of their own pasts and the gang bosses that the establishment effectively hires though neglect to run these inconvenient industries. I have nothing but a profound contempt for the feminist hausfrau's obvious disdain for the most vulnerable simply because they use their few assets to give themselves a decent living.

Our first commentator above noted that ...trying to oversimplify the sex industry and paint everybody's experience as the same is extremely myopic Indeed - so you must remove the stigma AND the abuse: two sides of the same coin. And you do this through the integration of this community into society and economy and improving the conditions of 'white trash' (as they are sneeringly considered even as they are being 'reformed') instead of leaving them to fend for themselves. 'White trash' are people too. They have rights to free choice.

To summarise, sex positive approaches to feminism are not substitutes for economic equality or basic rights but they are a corrective in two directions against the tendency of progressives to drive essentialist feminist ideology in directions that are, bluntly, anti-human. At one level, sex positive feminism permits women to make their own choices about pleasure and objectification that best suit their economic conditions as they really are. It allows them to make rational economic choices without stigma.

At another level, sex work helps many of the poorest and most vulnerable in society to find routes out of social and economic marginalisation through making use of their limited assets, ultimately accumulating sufficient capital or connections to become the social equivalent of the grade school teacher. In the former, we are talking about mental, social and emotional liberation against the preconceptions and demands of mother and big sister as much as, probably more than, those of men. Getting it right about sex-positivity is also about self-confidence and getting it right about family and marriage.

In the latter, we are talking about removing the block on mobility from below created by an excessive reliance on education and 'respectability' and an opportunity to help the process of turning back the tide of social misery that progressivism and churches have done nothing to reverse. Sex-positive feminism is not the be-all or end-all of human liberation but it is an important component of it, one in which women themselves decide what is acceptable in the use of their own bodies at the time when they hold maximum market value in an imperfect world.

I suspect that women will feel very free to respond and with some vigour but I hope that this time we get a few brave men to say something intelligent and not behave like fearful self-censoring liberal whiteys at a black power meeting.


[1] This would presumably be September 18th, 2009, when New Labour was still the Government of the country. This now seems like aeons ago. We breathe easier in many ways despite the excesses of Theresa May. 

[2] In the original there was a link to a remarkable performance on YouTube. Some copyright troll appears to have taken exception to the music and the world is now deprived of the experience ... the effect of copyright trolls on simple pleasures over the last half decade is incalculable. Naturally, subsequent references to the video have been removed. 

[3] This refers to those women commenting on the hidden Facebook thread and they are not named because they do not have their consent to be named.  However, it is I who am being discreet, not they. They were frank and open and I admire them for that.

[4] This perhaps obscure reference has sex work in Uzbekistan stand for all emerging world sex work as different from sex work in the West because of the different social conditions. I count pole dancing as a form of sex work not in order to diminish it but, on the contrary, to describe it. It is the use of sexual allure or attraction to part others from their cash. Much of Hollywood's acting is sex work in this sense. 

[6] Mexico still teeters but has not yet fallen. Meanwhile we have a quasi-organised crime state in Islamic State and Europe is being destabilised by the mergence of organised criminal smuggling rackets out of Africa and through the Balkans. Add the emergence of similar racketeering corrupting the South East Asian states and we see the situation is getting worse on a global scale without actually tipping over yet to system collapse in the West - but maybe it is just a matter of time.

[6] The links between contemporary ideological feminism and faith-based religious fundamentalism are particularly disturbing and were raised at the Debate on May 13th. 

[7] I should have written 'should ensure' - it cannot be 'good business' at this present time because it remains stigmatised and unregulated.  

[8] I was not, of course, meaning to suggest that pole dancers or, indeed, sex workers are sociopaths. What I was trying to say is that sociopathic behaviours as defined by conventional morality are often rational situational responses to social conditions and that moralising about them is meaningless since many moralists would behave in precisely the same way if they found themselves in those same conditions. In some ways, I approve of sociopathic responses in some extreme conditions of socially generated poverty and exploitation as necessary checks and balances on those who turn a blind eye to such conditions. The organism must survive and reproduce ... it is possibly the only human right that is not invented. 

[9] One of my frustrations is that feminist objectification theory is selective and false in two senses. First, that it fails to recognise the normality and 'rightness' of general objectification as a general means of surviving in the world (which I have discussed elsewhere). Second, that the anti-objectification camp themselves treat their enemies - males and sex-positive or vulnerable females - as objects. The first is stupidity and the second is hypocrisy.

The Sex Work Debate

On May 13th, I was in the audience for the misnamed 'London Thinks' debate at Conway Hall on sex work. There was precious little thinking going on as two sets of allegedly empowered females went hammer and tongs at each other from fixed positions. There was certainly no serious representation of the male point of view, barring an excellent call from the floor for positive unionisation of sex workers by a representative of the TUC. The audience was quite factionalised and often aggressive (despite some very able chairing by Samira Ahmed).

The most useful intervention, other than the TUC speaker, came from a pleasant young female and black Londoner (again from the floor) who refreshingly rose above a sea of identity politics to talk in a matter of fact way about the sexual culture of young males in her circle with tolerance and openness. If this is the young today, roll on time so that they can run the country!

On the one hand, we had representatives of the anti-sex work lobby who seemed to rely on dubious statistics, ideological formulations that stereotyped males (such as the villainous and insulting term 'rape culture' and the absurdly simplistic 'patriarchy') and the extrapolation of horrible personal experiences into general public policy,. This is never ever a good idea. Their final position was the Nordic Model - the criminalisation of male customers and (allegedly) social services support for vulnerable women, although how the hell that latter would happen, in an age of austerity and all-round administrative incompetence and authoritarian malice in the lower reaches of our system, beats me.

On the other hand, we had what amounted to a small business lobby speaking the language of quasi-Thatcherite economic rights set in a stone of centre-left theory about exploitation. Ideology again - almost pat out of a lobbying text-book. They seemed to see the male as little more than (ironically) an object - the customer or 'punter' to be fleeced of his funds. However, their solution to a social reality was far more sensible - the so-called New Zealand model of decriminalised but regulated sex work designed to ensure health and safety and legal protection for the workers.

I was persuaded that this latter model was the right one although I have been struck by the comments of a friend about German decriminalisation which seems to have solved the problem it was designed to solve - taking organised crime out of the game much as the legalisation of betting did in the UK many years ago - only to entrap women in classic large-scale capitalist enterprises where the conditions are better but not good.

There is damn-all for sex workers if big capitalists skim off the earnings of labour on the standard capitalist model and nothing is done about stigma or the wider social conditions that lead to vulnerable or poor women being directed into this work reluctantly because there are no alternatives. One suspects the Germans are simply trying to corral their vulnerable migrants and underclass into manageable units rather than invest in policies that might raise questions about the single market, incompetent pan-European law enforcement and the costs of transforming the conditions of the lower decile in any society by bringing to bear the resources and skills of the upper decile.

The point is that our society should cut through all this nonsense and get down to basic principles. The problem of sex work is lack of consent on the one hand - which the sex workers themselves point out can be handled with improved and better financed law enforcement that respects the sex workers as persons - and general economic conditions on the other. If a sex worker actively chooses sex work, then this is her or his business and as he or he is right that the alleged prostitution of the body is no worse (subject to health and safety considerations) than the alleged prostitution of the mind by a corporate lawyer (under some circumstances). There is also many a male trapped in a loveless marriage and a dead-end job whose liaison with a sex worker is the only thing between him and suicide - the girls in such cases should be trained as social workers, be considered economic assets and get a regular living wage.

Issues of consent can be handled by sound policing while those of reluctance and poor choice by decent social policies that educate and help people out of poverty, alongside regulation for health and safety, and, above all, the elimination of the vicious stigma applied to these people and their dependants. What is not helpful is driving this trade underground so that the nice people cannot see it (oooh, look the law is working! like hell!), creating the illusion that there is no problem by having periodic show trials of punters or (on the other hand) banging up the girls (in particular) in cattle farms albeit with human resources departments and regular visits from government inspectors.

We need reforms not to the behaviour patterns of women and men (we are dealing with human beings here and not Kantian saints-in-waiting) but to the behaviour patterns of bureaucrats and policemen. We still do not have, as the Rotherham abuse cases have shown, social strategies for investment in the most vulnerable people in the care sector aged between 12 and 18 nor do we have a strategy for handling the massive flow of economic migrants which feeds the sex trade's worst aspects.

Instead, the moralists and fools simply want to throw those women and men who have reached some form of stability in life and have made choices as human agents, no different from those have others stacking shelves or waiting at table, into the hands of the criminal classes. They also clearly want to have males who purchase sex treated as if they were paedophiles, humiliated in show trials. We are still not dealing with the central causes of paedophiliac exploitation as Government works hard to evade its historic complicity in its criminal networks, so it is scarcely likely that the same people will get much of a handle on migrant and underclas exploitation without revolutionary change in our national political culture.

Everyone evades what is necessary - national investment in bringing the most vulnerable to the point where they can make sound and healthy decisions for themselves and the encouragement of conditions for sex work in which the sex workers themselves own their own businesses and bodies and law enforcement actively protects them from bad customers and the underworld alike. There is much to be said for the New Zealand approach in this context - as a start. Above all, if sex work is to continue at all (and it will, regardless of governments) it should be under conditions where the price goes up and the sex workers get the profits precisely because the only people doing it are the people who want to do it rather than because they have no choice in the matter. The moralists and seventies radicals should back off now and leave it to the socialists and trades unionists ...

Friday, 15 May 2015

What Is This Thing Called 'Spirit'?

Trying to define ‘spirit’ comes down to an interpretation of Existence itself – does it even exist or is it an invention and, if it exists, is it based within matter or does it arise from consciousness? These are probably non-questions if we start from the existentialist position of accepting Existence’s ultimate un-knowability and then make the nature of spirit a matter of choice and so of belief.

That would be easier all round. If it is a choice made without any associated ability to know the truth of the matter (full knowledge that is), this must suggest an attitude of tolerance to those who make another choice than ours. We cannot know. They cannot know. And so we each choose in our own way. Where do we go from here?

The Investigative Project

If we choose the primacy of matter, then we choose either a creator of matter as (at the least) implicit (against which spirit is to be judged and by whom spirit is judged) or we choose no creator at all but just pure eternal and boundless materiality. If we choose the principle of consciousness, we choose an implicit immanent consciousness within Existence (even if it is ultimately unknowable) or we choose our own integration into an unknowable Existence as its own creator through our belief and action.

In simplistic terms, we have the theocratic systems, scientific materialist systems, systems of immanence or systems of existential or magical engagement. The choice for exploration in this text is the last of these. A belief that might sustain us here is that we create ourselves and our world even if we know that there are material limits to that creation, ones that ultimately derive from the very unknowability of Being.

That we can describe and even utilise matter does not mean that we can know matter and in perceiving, ordering, filtering and manipulating matter, we and not some outside party are the creators of its use-value, even when and as we use the creations of similar others for our own purposes. So, those who believe in a God, those who believe only in scientific materialism and those who believe that consciousness exists outside ourselves in Being need not read on - except out of curiosity as to how other minds than theirs might think.

What we offer is a concept of Being grounded in the expansion of our own day-to-day consciousness to encompass itself and what it can grasp through itself – and through the mystery of its engagement with other consciousnesses that strive in similar ways to live and thrive. Human, alien, machine, animal, plant or, in the spirit of open-mindedness to possibility, brute matter without apparent life or source of creation (whether from procreation or invention), the unknowability but potential equality of other components of existence remains a nagging constraint on us.

This expansion of our own consciousness is a constant revelation based on a permanent struggle with Being in all its manifestations. Liberation is existential yet acquired through perception and cognition. Whether fully achievable or not within actually experienced social reality, an individual reality can be developed in which, even if momentary, an irrational and profound altered state of consciousness can express a true will of sorts.

This, in turn, may point to an existentially constructed nature that may become, for a moment, apparently all consciousness, boundless and without object. These moments may be less interesting (certainly no cause for the abnegation implicit in such searching within systems of immanence) than the transformation that takes place within the person from before to after a moment of heightened experience. The moment is, in this sense, far less interesting than the state of 'being' afterwards and its contrast with that state of 'being' that existed before. The project may thus be four-fold:-
  • To explore how subjectivity (the sense of self) can expand to levels that can encompass a perception of the non-self of existence;
  • To explore how external representations and archetypes outside both mind and body can be brought into the self in order to create a willed internal order that unites body and mind in a wholeness in its relation to the world;
  • To explore how the body itself can represent the self (the mind) in its journey to existential wilfulness;
  • To explore the role of ecstasy in particular (any form of ecstatic state) in engaging the body and mind as one whole in the non-self of existence.
As we noted above, the issue is not the subjective state or the reality or otherwise of the objects or persons used or engaged with to change mental states but the transformed individual after such states. Ecstasy (the Dionysiac impulse), for example, is a tool towards a subsequent state of being. Concentration on the ecstasy itself to the exclusion of the transformation is mere sensory play, a pleasure and an entertainment or even a therapy of sorts but not an enhancement of one’s life in the face of raw existence.

Some Notes on Method

A central issue in the history of exploring consciousness has been the recognition that some personalities (without disrespect to others) have a powerful internal drive towards engagement with these questions. A second has been the attempt, often for apparently noble reasons, by some who have followed this searching path to keep their findings secret, to be transmitted only in a certain form to certain people as a ‘tradition’.

The first is a fact of nature, applicable only to some and not all, and in itself certainly argues against religious universalism. The attempt to create a way of relating consciousness to reality that all can understand not only requires excessive simplification but it demands institutionalization and, in the end, the oppression of the minority of those who could continue their exploration beyond tradition.

This has been the way of the great institutionalized religions of the West, especially Christianity, Judaism and Islam, where the necessity of a universal or ethnic message has perforce ‘dumbed down’ the spiritual. The searching mind is only permitted to explore within the ethical and intellectual framework permitted it by priests and elders. Mystical traditions - whether Sufi or Qabbalistic or that of, say, Boehme - have got around this but in a very unsatisfactory way, spirit operating at half-cock so to speak.

Today, the clash of institutional norms with genuine personal engagement in moral questions has never been clearer than in the mishandling of recent child abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. On the other hand, the secret society or the romantic belief in Hidden Masters might charitably be regarded as a response to the institutionalization of spirituality but this is being far too generous about what is a process of exclusion rather than inclusion of the searching mentality. It suggests that a few give themselves the right to the resources to explore their individual spirituality without any recognition of all those searchers who they leave behind.

Here is the Scylla of spiritual conformity where the search is curtailed by custom (with perhaps various mystics or Swedenborg representing the limits of what might be achieved by someone under such circumstances).  There is the Charybdis of introverted tradition where the search is limited by the very forms required to build a system that can maintain a few adherents over many generations. The answer lies only in part in the tolerance and respect for others outlined at the beginning of this introduction.

For example, we might accept that sincere Catholicism is greater than the monstrous and sclerotic clericalism of the Vatican while the need for ritual and secrecy is a legitimate one for those seeking immanence, even if it may be a block to a direct relationship with Being. The recognition that ‘searchers’ are a substantial (rather than a small) minority but still a minority suggests that the searcher paradigm does not seek to create an institutional structure that will compete with or universalise its discoveries.

The process of 'searching' is also driven ineluctably towards a free and open society (though not necessarily in its current kleptocratic form) in which the rights of other types of minds are respected so long as they permit the full freedom to search – in other words that tolerance and respect are reciprocal throughout society. The freedom to search is also implicitly a total freedom of thought and expression, to transgress without harming others … in other words, it is, necessarily and both despite and because of its minority status, a liberal or rather libertarian attitude to life and to the lives of others.

At the same time, the search is private so that the right to micro-institutionalise the search into social forms, whether secret or not, must be recognized wherever other like minds are found, especially where such like minds may feel that they will face prejudice and social or economic disadvantage. But the position that the search must be constructed and passed on in forms that are necessarily secret is untenable.

This position represents the triumph of form over content, the error that because something has been authorised then it is true – indeed, this in itself expresses the essential spiritual failure of institutionalized structures of religion. Authority is never truth because the truth shifts with new facts. Moreover, there comes a point where the safety of searchers will require radical public expression as a defence against attack especially if the search involves transgressions that harm no-one and that require that ‘norms’ be questioned. Secrecy isolates and the isolated person is the most vulnerable to destruction - as trades unions have showen us, there is strength in collaboration.

The path of self exploration and of calculated transgression can learn from other spiritual approaches in both method and content but each search will be personal and individual. Social engagement in spiritual matters will be precisely linked to the degree to which a person, without value judgement from others, can find their path alone or not. For some, indeed, there may be a return to an institutionalized religious structure in the long run because, in fact, this best fits their spiritual needs. Imagine Catholicism (for example) thus invigorated!

So, to conclude, searching must start as anti-traditional and eclectic even if it leads back to paths that are ultimately existentially chosen as a tradition. The only tragedy in this would be if the searcher, having discovered a traditional or very particular destiny, pulled up the ladder behind them, as that intellectual monster Augustine did, and deny others the free right of search in subsequent generations. Such institutional sclerosis must always push us back to that form of spiritual liberalism in which all are free to follow their True Will in relation to Being.

The Starting Point – Structures of Reality

For the search to begin, it must be made axiomatic that material reality exists as something that can be analysed and made useful for the individual and social will. We extend our mind-bodies outwards to make Matter work for us. Interconnected in society over time, there is a continuum between our social and historical selves, our extended bodies, our dependence on and constraints from other selves (as social reality) and the utile Matter in which selves are embedded. To deny Matter as real is to complicate things unnecessarily.

Where the zone of doubt lies is at the extremes that are to be found in the vortex of this reality – both at the smallest and broadest (in space and time) limits of what our minds can comprehend and in the mystery of our inner Being which we intuitively understand to be interconnected with Matter. This inner sense of Being, in reality, cannot be understood in analytical terms, neither by us as thinking selves nor by society at large.

The reason for this profound ignorance is two-fold: the limits of perception (even extended through technology and through mathematics); and our inability to fix the movement of matter in the mind. We see a complex self awareness, uncommunicable to others and played out in a real time that is not always the same as perceived time.

Even if we could match brain states to mind states with considerable accuracy, any attempt to reduce the mind to assumptions based on pure materialism would be as presumptuous and absurd as assuming that the limits of our perception in the wider universe must necessarily relate to some omniscient God.

Thus, we have expressions of faith at both ends of the spectrum – from one party in believing that what cannot be known necessarily leads to deity because of ‘intelligent design’ and from the other that what cannot be known in the brain must be purely material in nature and structure. Theists and materialists merely direct their faith in different directions but with the same arrogant purpose of claiming more knowledge that the evidence permits, one filling the vacuum at the macro-level and the other at the micro-level.

Why should it not be equally true that there is nothing beyond our perception or that there is a soul within existence or that an inner soul is embedded in the body or that soul is embedded within social as well as material reality? Whatever is true, the functioning of whatever truth we choose operates beyond any possible human knowledge.

Perhaps (as much a matter of faith as that offered by the materialists for the non-existence of spirit and soul or the deists for the existence of God) we can take what we can experience of Being within ourselves as the spiritual starting point (especially since we cannot cognitively manage the universe!) We can then explore non-rational and non-materialist models for entering into a relationship with Being or at least with that unknowable reality that lies beyond perception and beyond mathematics.

Cultural Perspectives

Engagement with these issues may well reshape reality as we humans experience it (which is partly social and partly perceptual as well as objectively malleable) in a way that is precisely magical, that is concerning the use of the Will (which has to be defined further) to effect change in the world. Drawing down a very imperfect but transcendental perception of inner non-material reality might well recast both man and society in ways that we cannot yet predict - and which might cause fear as well as awe and joy.

We might reasonably postulate that, in the brain, is material energy (the electrical operations of the brain) but, beyond that, a transcendent scarcely knowable energy (the consequent connections and awarenesses). We (as ‘searchers’) in both worlds, ‘scientific’ and ‘spiritual’, draw down from the last to the first as ‘searchers’ and, through technological innovation, from the first to the last as ‘users’ – just as we might if we created an AI that could tap into that same transcendent energy on its own terms.

This changes our perspective on what it means to be conscious with some potentially frightening conclusions that require caution and compassion, given that each person lies somewhere different on the flow of experience between matter and spirit. The double danger is that moral value is given to those higher in the cosmic evolutionary scale over those who prefer to live in a world that is given and that we fail to recognize as equal those new consciousnesses, machine or alien or evolved, that come to match our position on the scale.

The first creates the danger of elitism, the weakness of many followers of both Eastern and new traditions. The second creates dangers of species-ism and the limitation of the good only to the human species under circumstances where much human behavior is vile - to its own type let alone to others. These are serious moral issues but they cannot be swept under the table as they are by the great universal religions, which include socialism and liberalism in this respect.

Other than compassion, the guard against elitism is that no person can know the spiritual nature of another. No outward forms or right conduct or right language can state that this person or that person to be ‘better’ than another, certainly not the observer over any observed. In this sense, Christ was right that all persons might enter his Kingdom of Heaven. No-one could say that they were ‘without sin’ and could judge another.

The point here is that the lowliest Indian peasant might be more advanced in this respect than a top cosmologist at an American University or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. None can know. All must be regarded as equal in potential for lack of any possible evidence to the contrary. Equality is the default position so long as other minds are unknowable. Fortunately, sensible public policy in the modern world militates against the arrogance of superiority amongst those who believe themselves to be uniquely blessed.

The second drives us in the other direction. It must be a fear to many that some may transcend the human condition through evolution, that machines may transcend humans or that we may find aliens who do so. This may be hypothetical and not require too much practical concern today. However, this may arise, in some far distant future, and we must then embrace such change and understand that the ‘rights’ accruing to the less conscious (like animals) stand under the twin rules of compassion and equity precisely because we may be in that place ourselves some day.

Further Lines of Research

We have laid out the four-fold project but the pathway to understanding the new consciousness are very similar to those of traditional philosophy but with this one difference, that the analytical takes us only so far. The analytical and the experimental limits us by suggesting what cannot be so in the present but it cannot tell us what might not be so in the future. These are some of the central questions for us:-
  • What language is best suited to describing the moments of transformation which might involve both a perception of personal transcendence in a context of immanence?
  • What precisely is our True Will when actions based on cause and effect appear buried in our history and in instinct? How do we exist as actors in a drama in which the playwright is history and we may wish to get off the stage at any time to make our own life choices?
  • How can we know anything when all knowledge is based on sensory inputs that are biologically determined? What is behind our perception of Being that would permit us to experience a relationship to it without recourse to the abstractions of mathematics?
  • What is our relationship as conscious beings not merely to the reality ‘out there’ but to the many varieties of consciousness, semi-consciousness, altered states and non-consciousness (including death) and to time?
  • How do we regard the biological drives within our body and their relationship to mind? (Religions have been afraid of the flow of chemicals that shift and change our perception and cause deep distress as well as great pleasure: will engaging with these material aspects of the self be far more fruitful in their potential for our True Will than seeking to crush or deny our animal natures?)
  • What is the relationship between analytical thinking, the management of the body and the use of images, sounds and other sensory inputs from the outer world in constructing our own True Will?
  • How do we connect with the unconscious mind and body, our autonomic system, so that we can learn to see things as our body sees them and not just as our mind collates sensory information into a simulacrum of reality?
  • Can we have a concept of evil even as we consciously seek new states of consciousness and alterations of reality? Can we take responsibility for consequences without avoiding necessary and creative risks?

Even that philosophy of the East that has (arguably) the most positive attitude to the world and is most tolerant of difference, Kashmiri Shaivism, still holds to the illusion that an individual can ‘rise’ from individuality to ‘universality’ through knowing their innermost Self. The illusion lies not only in the error that absolute knowledge of the innermost Self is possible but in the equal error that such a Self could ever be like other Selves and some Higher Consciousness i.e. be part of something universal. If the Self was known, it would not be universal and if it became universal, then it ceases to be the Self. However, once the illusion is removed, there are insights to be had from three of the four theories of Trika –
  • There is the attempt to understand the totality of the universe (or our relation to the absolute nature of Existence) which is not to be confused with understanding the universe;
  • There is the realisation of the individual but as individual (interpreted in Western terms as True Will);
  • There is the recognition that all Existence depends on vibration (which might recast as the recognition that all Existence is a matter of waves and particles that we may never understand in full but which offer theories of reality that we can seize upon to build a theory of our relationship to Existence).
If we break this down further as tools for the four-fold project, with the illusion stripped out, then we have:
  • The tool of perceptual transcendence by which we alter our consciousness periodically to bring massivity and scale to our thinking, placing immediate and sensory concerns in their proper proportion as units to be shuffled in alignment with our True Will;
  • The tool of constant self-questioning as to our own inner true nature, notably the correct balance between our body, our history, our environment and that powerful residual core of True Will, a personality that rises beyond socially constructed reality;
  • The tool of science, directed both to the material base of mind and universe, insufficient to tell us how things are in the absolute but able to improve our own ability to align who we are with the structures of matter into which we are embedded.
In this context, the aims of many religions may be illusory but their methods, as technical operations (body manipulation, breath manipulation, meditation, ecstatic practice, advanced visualization linking body and mind), may be of value ... and the exploration of these ideas is one of the reasons why this blog exists.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Frontiers 2 - The Exo-Planets

In our last Frontiers posting, it became very clear that space exploration is back on the agenda but that, in the near to medium term, it is a case of manned flight no further than Mars and that unmanned flights will be preoccupied with the solar system and, above all, investigating what can be done about asteroids which present a potentially existential threat to our species. Beyond this, there is a remarkable programme of work that is astronomical, observations from earth and space, which are most excellently reviewed by Cambridge Professor Carolin Crawford in her last in a long series of impressive Gresham Lectures on astronomy:

The 'big' coming event will be the launch of the James Webb Telescope in 2018, successor to the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, with unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from long-wavelength visible to the mid-infrared. The discoveries are just going to keep coming but none of them are going to change the fundamental problem that, as biological creatures of this planet, the anti-biological conditions of space and the vast distances involved are going to see physical exploration beyond our solar system as something for the very far distant future.

So why be interested in exo-planets other than scientific curiosity for its own sake. First, because the very far distant future is still possibly an era when humans or more differently evolved humans may have mastered both conditions and distance, even if it is only to send non-biological surrogates or machinery capable of seeding planets with our biology. Second, though we can tell very little about exoplanets now, it is more than intriguing and would have enormous effects on our culture if we found one that was sending out signals, whether deliberately or not, that showed that something conscious like ourselves had evolved as we have evolved (or differently).

We would be faced with some interesting challenges that would precede our decision to invest in further exploration - are these less or more developed, can we communicate, would they be friends or enemies, opportunities or threats? Anything beyond philosophical thought experiments (which should be handled by philosophers and not scientists) though is speculation, 'hard' science fiction. It is useful to explore philosophically the many various possible scenarios for the future: this is not a waste of time but it is, in practical terms, futile in the twenty first century. The real issues to consider arise from our own nature and perceptual and conceptual abilities to deal with radical discoveries. By the time that we think we know that there is something out there with which we are going to have contact, we will probably have evolved ourselves or, at least, have advanced our powers in the area of thought if only because of the practical use of artificial intelligence. So, let's stick to the facts here and not try to be a second division Arthur C. Clarke.

At the moment, exoplanets can be indexed according to their similarity to earth. These are known as Earth Analogs. You might equally see terms like Twin Earth, Earth Twin, Second Earth, Alien Earth, Earth 2 or Earth-like Planet. Whether these planets are more or less likely is still a philosophical debate about what deduction from science can tell us. As of about two years ago, the majority opinion of astronomers was something along the lines of their being as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of sun-like stars (11 billion of these, depending on the source) and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way Galaxy. This was a calculation based on Kepler space mission data. The nearest is around 12 light-years away which sets us the standard of hitting the speed of light safely for well over a decade of travelling before we can even observe one at close quarters with the human eye.

This, however, is not a calculation from observation but a 'could' based on the so-called 'mediocrity principle' which assumes that if we are as we are within a giant system then we are probably pretty average or mediocre and not so very special, so we should expect to find other things like us around. Philosophers can be highly critical of the assumptions behind the mediocrity principle (which we won't go into here) so it is probably best to say that the 'jury is out' and the case is, as in Scottish law 'not proven' but that it is a decent working assumption on which to base continued investigation until the data changes.

It is equally reasonable to suppose that we are accidental or exceptional and there are no planets like us that could bear life, let alone develop evolved consciousness with culture. This latter is the Rare Earth Hypothesis which starts by stating just how improbable it was that conditions would be right for multicellular life, let alone evolved consciousness. The debate can be studied from the Rare Earth Hypothesis entry in Wikipedia and from there you can check out the extensive references to Extraterrestrial Life The bottom line is that it is largely hypothesis and speculation. Nobody knows very much. It is just theory.

In the same realm of hypothesis and theory is the debate about terraforming in which engineers join scientists in positing that planets that do not currently bear life could be transformed by planetary scale projects into habitable homes for humans. This, of course, is more immediately interesting if it can be applied to a near neighbour like Mars but we are far from having the resources or knowledge to consider a project that would take aeons to complete. Even more theoretical work would posit alternative earths in multiverses or parallel universes. None of this is currently of any functional value although it is all very entertaining and stimulating. At a certain point, science fiction may become a distraction more than it becomes an aid to creativity.

However, there is practical work to be done - other than exploring space for data that might confirm the many earths or the rare earths model as more likely (or something inbetween). First, there is the search not only for habitable planets but also for signals that might come from habitable (or non-habitable) planets or deep space. Second, there is the science of astrobiology which is essentially about the conditions that may be possible or necessary for any form of life whatsoever to exist outside the Earth and where we might expect to find it. Third, there is the science of planetary habitability itself which is about comparing what has happened on earth with conditions on planets and hypothesising the relationships between planets and the creation of life forms.

What has emerged is an Earth Similarity Index, developed by NASA and SETI, which scales exo-planets as similar to Earth (the understandable model for habitability in an anthropocentric mind-set) on a range from zero to one where the Earth is one. The details are in the Wikipedia link but an ESI of 0.8 to 1.0 would cover any rocky terrestrial planet. The index is not to be taken as implying habitability at all - it is simply what it says on the tin, the similarity of a body (including large satellites) to the Earth in terms of mass, radius and temperature. Currently, the closest confirmed planet to the Earth is Gliese 667 Cc only 22.7 light years away. This rather 'cool' artist's impression of the planet should, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt in terms of detail but it gets across something of what such a planet may look like, the closest yet to us of the sort of planet which might be targeted for colonisation that we know of at this level of detail ...

(Source - Wikipedia - Attribution:"Gliese 667 Cc sunset" by ESO/L. Cal├žada - Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - )
This shows a sunset. The brightest star is the red dwarf Gliese 667 C, part of a triple star system. Two more distant stars, Gliese 667 A and B appear in the sky also to the right. There may be tens of billions of rocky worlds like this orbiting faint red dwarf stars in the Milky Way.

The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog is held at University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.  Gliese 667Cc has an ESI of 0.84 but there are two other confirmed exoplanets with higher ESIs - Kepler 438b (0.88) and KOI-1686.01 (0.89). Kepler-438b is 470 light-years from Earth. The Kepler reference refers to NASA’s Kepler telescope which was launched in March 2009, costing $600m and with a mirror about 60% the size of Hubble's, precisely to search for habitable zone Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way using just one instrument, a photometer which continuously records the brightness of stars, monitoring 1,500 stars simultaneously in a targeted block of the sky. When a planet crosses a star, its blockage of light permits it to be identified but the measurements are miniscule. Kepler merely identifies candidates. Ground-based observers and scientists then take over to confirm with about 10% of sightings proving to be false alarms. Kepler 438b received most media attention at the beginning of the year as the 'most earth-like planet'- only 12% larger and 40% more illuminated although its star is smaller than ours.

However, this information is probably already out of date. Exoplanets frequently have their data revised as new information comes in or is analysed. Some 'habitable planets' turn out not to be so habitable at all. It is hard for any non-specialist to get reliable information. The truth is that while many habitable (not the same as earth-sized planets so that reduces the Milky Way number from 11bn to 8.8bn) exoplanets are posited, only 1,000 confirmed exoplanets have actually been found (although this is a remarkable scientific achievement with over another 2,000 under investigation through Kepler, backed up by confirmatory ground observation). Of this, perhaps just over a dozen are confirmed as within the so-called habitable zone albeit with around 54 candidates to be confirmed. A habitable zone is a definable region around a star where a planet with sufficient atmospheric pressure can maintain liquid water on its surface, hence the water in the artist's impression of Glise 667Cc.

Ben Solomon has suggested that life sustaining planets be named zoetons on the principle that a spacefaring civilisation ought to start defining its terms in advance along the lines of what is going to be useful for that new emergent culture. The idea strikes me as premature. We are way off being spacefarers to the extent of requiring a new cultural paradigm. While the effort to think in these ways may be interesting, they ultimately fall into the category of speculative science. Nevertheless, science fiction may find the following paragraph from Solomon's blog posting in Lifeboat News useful in regulating its universes ...
Taking a different turn, to complete the space faring vocabulary, one can redefine transportation by their order of magnitudes. Atmospheric transportation, whether for combustion intake or winged flight can be termed, “atmosmax” from “atmosphere”, and Greek “amaxi” for car or vehicle. Any vehicle that is bound by the distances of the solar system but does not require an atmosphere would be a “solarmax”. Any vehicle that is capable of interstellar travel would be a “starship”. And one capable of intergalactic travel would be a “galactica”.
Speculation almost has to be rife in this area because travelling into space and finding new homes is the stuff of the dreams that turned many youngsters into scientists. There is more grounded speculation that there may be planets out there (super-earths) that are 'even more habitable' than Earth.  This speculation suggests that we are, not unreasonably, privileging Earth as the most habitable simply because we grew up there and that there may be planets that are more amenable to life than ours. This leads, in turn, to the call by a minority for some redirection of the search to include planets of some types outside the classic habitable zones around sun-like stars and red dwarves.

The debate is useful because it acts as check and balance on automatic assumptions about what, in the search for life (as opposed to just habitability for humans), we should be looking for - for example, underground oceans on planets well outside the 'zone' may be as likely to be where life is to be found as a rocky planet inside the zone. However, according to Ravi Kopparapu, a Penn State University physicist (according to the National Geographic article cited in the paragraph above):
"there is a very good reason why the binary habitable zone concept is important and relevant" ... Currently, when astronomers discover a planet, all they can learn about it is its mass and radius, how much light it receives from its star, and occasionally the composition of its upper atmosphere. Until scientists develop the techniques to study a planet's surface features, tectonic activity, and geological composition, the habitable zone concept remains the best guess of its habitability, says Kopparapu."
The James Webb Space Telescope should radically extend the range of our knowledge about these and related factors. It will be a step up but this is not a vehicle for fly-bys and close observation. The planet-finding programme will be extended significantly in the coming years with new space telescopes. NASA is launching Tess (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) and the ESA will launch Cheops (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite) in 2017. ESA will follow up with a larger planet finder, Plato, by 2024. The specific mission (despite the critique of those who think the search is too limited in scope) is to find Earth Analogs within the nearest (to us) habitable zones of sun-like star systems in as many locations as possible. The European E-ELT telescope which being built in Chile, is being designed to analyse the atmospheric composition of these planets and a better judgment made of habitability and even whether life is probably there already.

So, it is not impossible that the world will be stunned to find that a planet with all the atmospheric characteristics of life is proven probable rather than possible within a decade or two. How to get there, if we want to get there, is another matter entirely.

Note: There are a large number of entries on exoplanetology available from the relevant Wikipedia Template There is also an amusing if outdated Popular Science infographic of all the known exoplanets at the beginning of 2014.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Why the British Labour Party is in a Tail Spin ...

A simple view of the problem of the Labour Party, expressed from both within its own Left and from middle class observers looking at it from outside, is that Labour has (in the words of one correspondent) "transformed from a party of the trade unions into a party of the metropolitan, largely London-based opinion-shaping set and new clerisy." In this model, the party that was born to represent working people’s interests "is now little more than a kind of political safe haven for a new elite that [is] cut off both from traditional politics and the masses." Labour politicians, largely raised in tight networks of middle class public service, activism, professional public affairs, NGO and charity work, see themselves "as providers of public benevolence, operating from a metropolitan milieu, well away from any of the problem areas to which they minister."

I believe that, while there is some truth in this, it is not the whole truth by any means - the symptom is being mistaken for the disease. It is all little more complicated ... after all, some areas increased or solidified their Labour vote: Wales, The North East and so on. The Labour vote actually went up more than the Conservatives (by 1.5%) yet they were down 26 seats. Core Labour areas seemed to become more Labour (excepting Scotland), especially if one takes into account the fact that UKIP was stripping out some working class Labour votes (which means they were being replaced by regional middle class votes). Losing one major sectional interest (Scotland) 'did for' Labour in Parliament but the hidden story is that the reason that this is a disaster is that Labour is little more now than a coalition of interest groups and, if the Labour representatives of the interest groups that make up that coalition can no longer command the constituencies they claim to speak for, Labour faces the problem that each time political reality breaks the back of one bit of the chain that holds it together, the Party drifts further and further away from office.

What you are seeing here is not merely a metropolitan matter but a strategic issue that embraces the whole nation ... because the core model for New Labour was never so centralised as it appeared. It always was a federation but New Labour turned it from a federation operating as a 'national socialist' force into one that was far more coalitional. Yes, national politics in terms of the State were increasingly centralised and the Party itself as organisation (hitherto the expression of Labour's 'national socialist' culture) effectively gutted as an independent force but power was now delegated to sub-elites within a range of linked 'satrapies'. In other words, New Labour did not adopt a command' model so much as an 'imperial model' in which local Rajas kept the faith and administered things on behalf of the centre in return for favours and being left alone within their area of concern. 

The model depended on de-socialising its interest groups, unravelling the belief in a single unified nation (multiculturalism being only the most obvious part of a much more widespread phenomenon) and then turning these groups into a coalition of interests which developed mutual dependency. We had a) small nations and regions, b) trades unions and c) identity groups. The idea was that these three combined under the leadership of a liberal intellectual class (which had always historically been treated not as superior but as agents of the Party) would always give a permanent majority against conservatism, defined as the dominant inchoate sentimental mass that the old elites ruled through rhetoric and lassitude. But this model is now falling apart. How? Why?
We have already mentioned that the core regional group - Scotland - has broken out of the programme for entirely local and historical reasons but one has to understand why this is so devastating to Labour. The Scots were central to the original Labour Project and they drove much of its radicalism right up until the formation of New Labour - represented by Brown and Cook. There is a line, believe it or not, from Jimmie Maxton and the 'Red Clydesiders' all the way through to Gordon himself. Brown and Cook represented different unionist and devolutionary models in the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s but, when it came, devolution (Brown's preferred strategy against independence) redirected the attention of Scots back on to Scotland itself, Scottish problems no longer demanded a unionist and London-centred perspective. The Imperial model no longer applied. The Scottish Labour elite found itself detached from Scotland even while it held high office in London, looking increasingly like a bunch who would go off to the Imperial Capital to rule the world and simply throw Scotland into the pot without considering its needs.

To counter this, Wales, the North East, South Yorkshire and the North West retained an interest in the Union as a means of getting advantages for their various Labour-dominated largely urban and densely populated local authorities so it was logical to continue to vote Labour. Remnants of British industrialisation, these areas are only viable economically so long as they are sucking the South as dry as they can of the additional revenues that come out of London as global trading city. These areas are now stuffed in terms of direct access to the centres of power for half a decade, although Tory One Nation thinking will try to sustain some balance here, seeking to reward those areas that realise that localities cannot just gamble every five years on a Labour victory for their sustenance and so pull at least their business classes into some sort of accomodation with Conservatism. 

Crossrail, even with its risks to votes in the Conservative corridors through which it passes, is very much part of that strategy of engagement. Patronage is now fully in the hands of the centre-right ... and it will be used to chip away at Labour hegemonies. The effect on segments of the white working class will not mean that they will hold tighter to their Labour mother for fear of something worse but that they may, as in Scotland, look for new patrons - and this is where UKIP, if it can mature, comes in. UKIP ousted the Tories as second party in much of the urban North East and was clearly picking up Labour votes just as Labour was picking up Liberal votes.You can expect the Labour side to try to revive 'regionalism' as a solution ... Prescott's original vision ... but the people just do not care enough, it all looks too self interested now (like any sudden interest in electoral reform) and the Tories could trump it easily enough with a bit County, City and Parish decentralisation.

There is a certain historical dead weight that will ensure certain areas will remain Labour strongholds all things being equal for a very long time, bases from which perhaps an opportunistic neo-Blairite strategy might expand again, but, with the loss of Scotland, the Party cannot afford to lose another fortress. As much energy will be spent on holding these territories in the two years leading up to a European Referendum, when the metropolitan love of Euro-socialism may not chime with the Party's roots as the arguments develop, as in building the policies for a recovery of credibility in Middle England.

The second element of the Coalition, the trades unions, also expected highly focused goodies (full employment and worker's rights, often vectored through the EU) from its support for Labour as a political movement. In return, in 1996 and then again in the middle of the Blair regime as the Warwick Agreement of 2004/5, the trades unions gave up on their historic association with 'socialism' (already attenuated compared to the Marxist versions elsewhere) to concentrate on a restricted range of policy imperatives, only a few of which were about interests outside their own. The deal with the devil was that the Labour Movement would get all it wanted as a special interest but not worry its pretty little head about the context - the broader cultural, economic, freedom, national security and even social justice (insofar as this meant transforming society rather than amelioration of targeted abuses) aspects of the case. 

The special interest that once meant all workers now increasingly meant only workers employed by the State. This drew it inevitably towards the Brownian model of a moderated capitalist economy from which a surplus was to be extracted - to serve not the people but the State and the special interests that served the State under cover of 'improved public services'. In the recent period, this has meant that the two heirs (Milliband and Balls) to a decent social justice-driven Scottish ideologue found themselves offering little more than to sweat the private sector a little to benefit only (in the eyes of the very many working people who are in the private sector) the public sector and regional and state sub-elites. Irritation at Scots and other regional claims to more money for their support of a Labour Government during the campaigning of the weeks before the vote on May 7th may be read as code for irritation about all such diversion of funds from 'hard working families' in the South, still struggling to return to prosperity levels of pre-2008, to a range of special interests who were only more needy in their own eyes.

On top of this two-layered sponge of interest-group regionalism and trades unionism, both neutered by their lack of interest in anything other than their own sectional interests, was overlaid a mish-mash of London-based rainbow identity politics managed by a professional political class seeking, in a consciously Gramscian model, to control the culture in order to control the politics of society. There  was a history to this - a transformation of the student revisionist Marxism of the 1970s into a sort of radical centrism that merged with the rise of middle class activists representing neglected identities, part neurosis, part performance art and part genuine grievance packaged as a shrill set of demands for victims who clearly did not include their own representatives. It was an ideology that presumed to speak for others and denied agency - it also intruded into private life and private custom.

The horror of the Rotherham child abuse case exposed the falsity of the pose although this would scarcely have had an effect on the national election. It did not occur to many enthusiastic Left-liberals that a twentieth century Italian Marxist model might be intellectually creative but could not represent political reality in a highly developed country of largely prosperous and free but anxious households. Nor that the triangulations of American liberals trained within the tradition of Saul Alinsky spoke to very different social conditions and histories. The sponge cake has every sort of pretty bon bon on it now but each was merely that - a bon bon with no serious base in the country even if it made a very good fist at asserting cultural hegemony while it held the reins of State.

So, for example, the metropolitan feminist element could lay claim to the pages of the Guardian but alienated many women in the country as much as it mobilised others. It also irritated many men otherwise tending to tolerance and liberalism. Cameron, instead of trying to placate this activist class with positive discrimination in favour of second rate ideologues as Labour did, began to promote fewer but infinitely more able women into office - Theresa May and Justine Greening are simply more impressive than Yvette Cooper and who? (we can't even remember their names!). Who Labour should have remembered were Barbara Castle and even latterly Margaret Beckett and nurtured similar strong fighters for economic equality within the trades union movement and broght them into public life. Instead, it emphasised cultural and social activism. 

Similarly, the LGBT element in society often felt patronised by their own activists. Many, actually quite socially conservative (it was always presumptuous to think that someone who liked other men or was black or was a woman or was a Muslim could be corraled into a coherent liberal-left 'line'), were pleased at Cameron's struggle against his own Right to push forward civil marriage. On the Left, strong and courageous individuals like Peter Tatchell noticeably preferred the Greens to Labour which may have been flaky but did tend to attract some of the more creative individuals in radical politics.

Perhaps the only vote captured for New Labour that 'worked' in the mass for it was the ethnic minority vote and then only selectively. Only now has Labour ousted Respect in Bradford but the suspicion (apparently admitted to friends of mine by Labour officials in a state of inebriation) amongst the white working class who worried about these things grew that migration was partly engineered to create this bloc. Whether conspiracy theory or not, the very rise of such minority groups and the compromises required in terms of a faith-based agenda to ensure their votes (often at the expense of their own more vulnerable members) eventually alienated many liberal-minded middle class people as much as they did the demonised white working class. 

What was striking about the Middle England vox pops after the election on Newsmight was that there were evidently traditional Labour voters uncomfortably moving to the Tories. The message was 'my Gran would be spinning in her grave' but it needed to be done. The Tories spoke to economic anxieties outside Labour's core areas and public sector but that would be matched by anxieties inside their core vote - it would be a numbers game. What may have tipped the balance was a mounting sense of cultural resentment which was far from illiberal - indeed, a deep resentment that the resentment was merely dismissed as illiberal is an explanation for some part of that swing. If certain votes moved to UKIP, that cultural discomfort moved other votes to the Conservatives as LIBERAL protectors of the homeland culture.

With the fortress areas under siege from within by cultural discomfort and from without by selective patronage, with the organised trades union movement lacking any strategy that does not require a liberal Labour Government to enact it and with the cultural model promoted by the 1970s Generation looking threadbare, Labour has some serious issues to address, issues that may not be sufficiently addressed by simply offering Blair-lite when Cameron is doing that so much better. 

More to the point, Labour may now be structurally 'stuffed' because it allowed itself - in its hunger for power in the late 1980s and early 1990s - to adopt a coalitional American style politics that works in a Presidential system and one where Congressman wear their party discipline lightly but which hollows out the organisation that forgets that the United Kingdom is still small in area, with a distinct and shared national culture that places 'shared values' and household interest ahead of, or alongside at worst, special group interest. The point about socialism (in its national form which is the old British form) is that it could genuinely trump individualism and create a dialectic between the nation and the personal expressed in two great parties of state offering different visions of the national interest. 

By removing socialism and replacing it with an eighteenth century concept of 'interest', Labour has undercut its only means of undermining conservatism and the ruling elite in the long term, even if it could carry it off well in the short term. New Labour was an unsustainable political model. We may be about to see the Strange Death of Labour as a coalition that may never get traction again for majority government, one that now stands in the way of radical national alternatives as dead weight, whose base is now either aging and tired or young and inexperienced and which has sentenced its own support base to second class status for a generation.There may be no solution other than the failure of its opponent.