Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Post-modern existential anxiety, or "When it all falls into place"

Let me state right from the start that this post will be self-indulgent and somewhat exhibitionistic, and I'm not really saying anything particularly new or original. The reason, both for the content and this "disclaimer" should become obvious as we move along. Right then, with that out of the way let's get to it. I had a bit of a revelation today.

Last night I (more or less) finished the paper I've been working on for the past - well, two weeks or so if I'm being honest. I actually began working on it roughly two months ago, but for reasons which - again - will become clear I didn't really do any proper work until those two weeks ago. Naturally I felt like a massive burden was lifted off my shoulders (...and Atlas shrugged eh?) after two months of pressure and guilty conscience over the fact that I hadn't worked as much as I felt I should, coupled with the ridiculus expectations I put on myself. The last two weeks were particularly gruesome (not just for me, but - I'm ashamed to say - also for my family). I then went on to consider how I've in fact lived with this constant pressure and tension since I picked up my studies again last August.

This got me thinking. That pressure and tension comes from expectations. Expectations I have on myself, expectations others have on me and perhaps most of all, expectations I imagine others have on me. This puts me under constant evalutation and a demand to perform at all times. No wonder I've been feeling stressed out huh?

But it gets better. My ideal profession would be as a part-time secondary school teacher in religion and philosophy, and part-time university lecturer. Yet, aren't those professions associated with a lot of pressure and tension, stemming from constant evaluation? Certainly the way there does. Doing a PhD, for instance, would entail (at least) four or five more years of studies, with even higher stakes. For a while I thought maybe I should finally abandon those ideas I had for my future profession. Disregard them as flights of fancy. Not for me.

And then it hit me. Working as a teacher or lecturer, I might be under constant scrutiny and evaluation from pupils and students, sure. But I wouldn't be questioned in the same way. Having a PhD, a position as teacher and lecturer, I would have some kind of legitimacy. A sense of entitlement. Sure, I might still be questioned, but I would be questioned in my role as teacher and lecturer. To put it bluntly - those questioning would not be in a position of authority or power over me.

From this, I deduced that perhaps I've been in the educational system for far too long. Being a pupil or a student - at least to me - entails being constantly questioned by someone in power or authority. There is (necessarily) a skewed power relation at play there. Considering I've been a pupil or student for more or less 25 years now (man, a quarter of a century - how about that?) and I constantly feel the need to justify myself, every single hour of every single day, no wonder I'm a bit of a wreck. Even during the year and a half or so that I was employed, I was employed at a damned call center/customer support! I mean - if there's any job where you are in an even worse position with regards to being questioned, I've yet to hear about it.

So. Part of the problem then is that this constant questioning somehow strikes to the core of my being (to put it dramatically). But why is that so? Why is the core of my identity so entwined with how I perform in the eyes of others (or how I perform in what I perceive as the eyes of others, as it were)?

As always when I consider things like this, I return to my early teens. For some reason I got in my mind that I should deconstruct myself. Yeah, I was a very precocious child. Or pretentious, if that makes you happier. I've always connected this with events in my earlier childhood, but I don't think I've really understood it until today. What I suspect is that I felt questioned, even challenged, and that it struck at the core of my identity. Which isn't too surprising, as a child's identity can be a pretty frail thing. As a way of protecting myself, I went on to deconstruct that core - to remove it from scrutiny or whatever. And then to rebuild myself. Better. Stronger. Faster. Or rather - smarter, sharper, more insightful.

Of course, my identity then becomes built almost solely from within. I think, at that time, I was actually quite impressed with Ayn Rand (which, I realise as I write this, is probably why I detest her so much now, funny that). I looked to all sorts of self-help, self-realization stuff. I even read James Redfield! I also turned to a lot of Jungian psychology, chaos magick, qabbalah - hell, I took everything I could get. I was a bloody post-modern poster child.

Now then. What happens when you put such a person through two decades of education? Well. You either get a complete breakdown on your hands, or an over-achieving yet constantly guilt-ridden and anxious person. I almost ended up as a complete breakdown. In 2001 I crashed and burned something awful. Went borderline psychotic and was on the brink of retreating into this "Shadowrealm" I'd crafted for myself. With a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy and medication I got out of it, eventually, in 2005. Since then, I've been able to keep things in check. At least until around this time last year.

I'd had a PhD application rejected, and it naturally hit me hard. Hard. Because, while CBT and medication had kept me from descending into la-la land - the basic problem was still there. You see, for me my sense of self-worth, my fucking raison d'etre, is directly tied to my sense of intellectual capacity. If I'm not considered smart, I'm nothing. Of course, what others actually think of me matters little - what matters is what I think others think of me. Not so strange that I have a hard time putting down my thoughts in print, huh? Shit, my whole existence hinges on what I write being perfect.

While it's ironic that I've spent these past two decades studying and reading about psychology, education, existentialism, phenomenology, cognitive science, the post-modern situation and such - without actually applying it to myself, I guess that it's also pretty understandable. I mean, you don't see the beam in your own eye right? Too close to home?

Do I have a point with this, or am I just telling my life-story? Well, I do have a point, actually.

It occurred to me that one reason I've been seeking out all of these subjects is because they give me a sense of comfort. I'm not the only one struggling with these things (even if I've only been semi-conscious of my own struggle). And don't even get me started on chaos magick or the writings of Robert Anton Wilson. That's like the holy grail for kids shellshocked by the post-modern condition. The thing is though, these are all just tools I use to deal with what I can only describe as "post-modern existential anxiety" on a day-to-day basis. Floating devices for when you're lost in the vast and raging post-modern seas.

These last couple of years, I've started gravitating towards complexity theory, constructivism and the branch of cognitive science established by Humberto Maturana and Fransisco Varela. Basically, what these perspectives advocate is a major shift in focus. From looking at "the things themselves" to "the relation between things". This immediately clicked with me, and I guess I realise why, now. To me, this perspective is the way out of the post-modern situation. There's an emphasis on ethical relations, rather than ethical objects. An emphasis on holism. A dissolution of the Cartesian dualism of body and mind, emotion and rationality.

And, I firmly believe this, here lies the key to moving beyond the post-modern impasse. Post-modernism is not so much a considered response to perceived failures of modernism as it is a reflexive reaction. Or a resignation to a world that is changing faster and ever faster.

This all also explains, to me, my political commitments. Consider that I badly feel the loss of belogning and affinities. I strongly feel I have no place in society, unless I can constantly prove myself intellectually in what I perceive as the eyes of others. That, if I fail in doing this, not only will I lose my place in society with regards to material needs - I will also lose my perceived value. Hell, at some level, I fear I'd even lose my family. Or at least lose the right to their respect and recognition.

Given that I feel this way, and that I find comfort in the holistic and deeply environmentally aware ideas of thinkers such as Maturana, Varela, Fritjof Capra, Arne Naess, Riane Eisler and more - it's certainly no wonder that I gravitate towards green politics. I hesitate to psychologically analyse others (other than for fun), but I'd say similar reasoning can be applied to, for instance, right-wing nationalists. Only in their case, they do not embrace a relational ideal. Rather they try to cope with the post-modern situation through brute force. Rather than accepting the world as changing, they cling to dreams of old and attempt to halt it. Now, the choice between these two perspectives is, deeply and fundamentally, ethical and emotional.

You might try to argue rationally for either view point - but I doubt you'd succeed. Not in any real sense at least. Sure, you might convince the person you're talking to - but at a conceptual level, no. Because let's face it - even if you could prove that a nationalist policy would lead to suffering and destruction, and that a green policy would lead to harmony and prosperity - there's a choice to be made. To claim that opting for the path which leads to suffering and destruction would be irrational is fine. But guess what? People are irrational.

It is an ethical question. This is because there is a choice involved, and when there's choice - real choice - there's always ethics. That's one thing the existentialists and post-modernists got right. It's probably their major contribution, as far as I'm concerned.

Coming back to the question of politics as ethics, I would like to add that any political rhetoric which doesn't involve both an emotional and a rational aspect is badly flawed. This is nothing new, people like George Lakoff have talked about this for ages I know. But it never really sunk in for me until today. Using emotional arguments is sometimes considered bad, even dishonest. Why is this? I would trace it to that pesky Cartesian division of mind and body, or even further to the Platonic distinction of the physical world from the world of ideas. Here, body or the physical is bad - mind or the idea is good. Emotions, being related to the body, are bad or better still - illusory. Those fuckers aren't even real. And you want to argue towards an emotional aspect? You crazy person, you.

Put differently - if emotions aren't even considered real, or valid expressions (at least on par with reasons and the rational) then sure, it might be dishonest to use emotional arguments. But emotions are real. When we make choices, most of the time we use an emotional judgement. Now, not even the most hardy rationalist would deny this (I suspect). What they would deny is the validity of those judgements. Rationality and reason reigns supreme, and anyone who opposes this is branded a heretic on the altar of Modernity. I exaggerate, but not by much. Any attack on rationality and reason is seen as a support for irrationality and unreason. As a support for those Dark Ages, when we all believed in God and Jesus was his son - hallelujah. This is because, within the modernist framework, everything is fundamentally dualistic - stemming from the division of body and mind, physical and idea.

What I propose is to attack the idea of dualism. I am not saying that it's wrong, per se. But it is not the only valid perspective. This is because rationality and reason are not fundamental. We are not born with reason and rationality, it's something we learn. Or well, fine, we might be born with it - but that is either because we've learnt it in the womb (and that's not as kooky as it seems - consider that premature births aren't that uncommon, and would you claim that something miraculously happens in the moment of physical birth which enables cognitive functions?) or because we can, in fact, inherit cognitive structures and patterns from our parents. That is to say, social and biological life are not as divided as they're often made out to be. You not only pass on "biological" features to your children, you also pass on "social" features. (This might require a lot more explanation than I feel like typing - suffice to say that thoughts, ideas, concepts are cognitive structures or patterns while at the same time they are chemical structures in our brains. None of that "are thoughts physical or mental" or "nature vs. nurture" stuff, thankyouverymuch.)

So, getting back on track. What is considered "emotion" is in fact primary, while "reason and rationality" are a "learned structuring of our cognitive process". At the same time, once we've "learned" reason and rationality it immediately begins to structure our emotions and our perceptions thus creating an instant feedback loop. As such, I imagine humans have probably had "reason and rationality" for a very, very long time. I might even go so far as to say that we've always had them - that we've inherited them from pre-human ancestors (no, not Tom Cruise's thetans). This does not mean that reason and rationality are ontologically prior to "emotions". Hell, they might even be coexistant in the way thoughts and brainwaves are. The point is, emotions are not reducible to reason and rationality.

This also means that, in a political debate, if you only engage with what you consider arguments grounded in reason and rationality - you will lose. Not necessarily in the way that you won't come out of it thinking "Hey, I totally pulverized that pundit!". You probably will. You might even have convinced whoever you debated with. But consider this: any political debate is public. You might be going around, trying to convince people one at a time that you're the bee's knees (oh how I've longed to use that in a sentence!) - and, honestly, good luck with that. Most likely you'll be using the public debate as a showcase or arena to let others know what you think, mean or want.

Here it gets tricky. Some of the viewers might be, rationally, convinced by your eloquent arguments. These are most likely to be the ones who already agreed with you from the start. Perhaps a couple of the "uncertains" too. Your opponents however, and I wager a lot of those "uncertains" too, will not be swayed. Rather, they will see "their" representative being attacked with "fancy words" or "ridiculus environmental jingo-ism". When you ignore the emotionally grounded arguments of your opponent, you further denigrate and invalidate not only your opponent in the eyes of his or her "followers" - you also risk doing the same to those same followers indirectly.

Both emotional and rational arguments are needed. And you need to address both kinds. Because trust me, your opponent most likely will. And because both kinds of argument are valid.

From all of this, it also seems obvious that any political conviction needs to be emotionally as well as rationally grounded, in order to be believable to others but also in order to be a genuine conviction. And it means that in the future, when I get upset that people "don't get" what I mean - I will try to add in the emotional arguments as well, to give them the whole picture and to be honest with what I mean and where I'm coming from.

Remember the disclaimer? Well, it's not really aimed at you - the reader. It's aimed at me, It's part of my self-deprecating defense mechanism.

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