Saturday, November 11, 2017

Beginning to think through some things about giving meaning to

Drawing on Nietzsche and his own harrowing experiences in the concentration camps to which he lost his family, Viktor Frankl re-emphasized the importance of finding meaning of some sort in order to survive. We are meaning-needing creatures. I don't know that this is unique to us. Domesticated animals, at least, can become listless, bored, and depressed without some directed activity. Most of us have also seen animals in the zoo pacing a dirt-path in their enclosures perhaps because the activity toward which their lives would normally be directed or devoted have been taken from them.
We can give meaning to the world and to objects in it. This is more plausibly unique to us as a species. We are not only need-ers of, but also creators of, meaning. And, we can give meaning not just to words, but also to objects and places and any number of things. A trivial example: I have a small pebble, blood-colored and roughly in the shape of a heart. It has a meaning for me, though it of course has no meaning in itself, no natural meaning. (That's saying nothing more than objects in the world are not intentional unless they are given intentionality by semantic monsters like us.)
What I've been puzzling over recently is the difficulty of giving meaning to an object. The pebble for instance has a meaning that I gave to it, but I wasn't able to do that as a pure act of the will. It should be clear that I'm playing loosely with the notion of meaning, thinking about denotation and connotation and various other members of the family of meanings, but it seems to me in any case, an individual isn't enough to give something meaning. There's Wittgenstein's private language argument in the Investigations—unless there is no such argument to be found—but there's also a more general sense in which I think one individual cannot create meaning out of whole cloth. The pebble has the kind of meaning it does for me because of some of its own characteristics (shape, color, etc.) and the context of its being found by me while walking my dog Mateo and the subsequent events of Mateo's death shortly thereafter. None of these is sufficient for it to have any kind of meaning; though a human is necessary to give meaning even if—as in this case—the meaning is in a sense private—a meaning only for me—I don't think I could give whatever meaning I wished to whatever object or word or experience just by an act of the will, by fiat. That's the sense, it seems to me, in which the perhaps-illusory private language argument is correct: no individual by herself is sufficient to create meaning, because meaning has to be answerable to some other constraint in order really to be meaning. 
Even in the case of language, I'm not sure that constraint has to be another language user.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

mother!, connection, and a few other things

I left Darren Aronofsy’s new film mother! with a lot to think about. Don’t worry, this isn't going to be a movie review; I have neither the interest nor the chops needed to provide one of those.
A lot of people I know and respect hated the movie and I understand why one would have that response. Among its failings has to be counted a marketing campaign that positioned it as a horror film. While horrifying, that isn’t what it is. I liked it—I might want to say I loved it, but, as with really difficult theater, I’m not sure that’s quite an emotion one can sustain toward this piece. I suspect it’s a movie that, in spite of its high-powered cast might have been better placed in arthouse cinemas than the AMC cineplex I saw it in. It has more in common with a move like Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In than than IT. When we were walking back to the car, Fernando noted the way it felt like a story by Cortázar. That, too, seems right.
The movie’s best (or maybe, most easily) seen as an allegory. As with the best allegories, it operates at different levels. At the most obvious level, we have a stark and unsympathetic retelling of Christian salvation history with its Garden of Eden, Fall, the murder of Abel by Cain, Incarnation and Redemption, and even Apocalypse. A student told me that he thought the movie “tried too hard,” and maybe the allegory is a little on the nose at this level. I don’t think so, but opinions may vary.
At another level, though, Bardem is not God—nor even the lesser creative mind he might represent at yet another level of allegory—but instead might represent any one of us. He stands for a perennial facet of the human condition that finds more expression in our world of immediate and total connection.
Bardem’s Him has someone in Lawrence’s mother! who loves him completely. She lives for Him, has created a world for Him, serves Him, and, as we see, is willing to die for Him and give Him her love as her ultimate gift. Only her child is able to compete with Him for her devotion.
Alas, it is not enough. As Bardem’s character says, “It is never enough.” That’s not a situation peculiar to a God who creates a world in order to be loved and who wants even the worst of His creatures to love him. It’s a situation many, if not all, of us find ourselves, one that’s exacerbated by the connectedness of our world.
As much as Him, I find myself searching for the approbation of people I barely know or who merely barely know people I barely know. Too often, I do that at the cost of appreciating and returning the real love and affection of those few who are closest to me, those few who invest their energies and lives in me.
That’s not new. As long as there have been crowds, we’ve looked for the superficial and fickle love of the crowds over the deeper, more constant, and therefore more real love of our true intimates. No matter the axiom, the birds in the bush are more attractive than the one in hand because they are yet to be captured.
For the first time in human history, however, most of us in the technologically advanced world have the real ability to chase a crowd. An insignificant fellow like myself could never have gathered more than a handful of people around himself before the last decade or so. Now, I can reach out to scores or hundreds of “followers” or “friends” on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever will come in their wake. Because their approval, their likes, their retweets, their shares are outside my control, it can be tempting to work harder for them than I ought. It can be just as tempting to overvalue them, to be too buoyed when I get them and too hard hit when I don’t. The energy, whether positive or negative, that’s expended and created in this chase can only come at the cost of other social interactions. Whatever else might be said about me—about us—our emotional capacities are limited. To paraphrase one of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity for another purpose—I think I’m getting this right—he who loves everyone, loves no one. Or, as Aristotle had it, one cannot have more than a few friends and expect them actually to be friends. In chasing a million interactions as though they were the most important, I run the risk of losing the ones that are most important. In making sure than I’m not alone, I might just end up that way.

That might just be me, but I think it might also be a more general truth. 

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Some passing thoughts on Nietzsche, velvet ropes, and marriage

Ressentiment is a characteristic of all “slave moralities,” according to Nietzsche’s picture in Genealogy of Morals. Roughly, ressentiment is an emotion of imagined revenge felt and nurtured by the underclass against those who do or are felt to oppress them. Because part of what it is to be in the underclass is to be powerless, those at the bottom of society have no real way to lash out  at those above them and so they imagine a punishment, whether that is the inevitable revolution or karma or the punishments of hell. “Though we may be downtrodden now, you will get yours in the days or world to come,” the oppressed mutter under their breath and it makes them feel better, even as it poisons the world for them.
Nietzsche gathers many examples of ressentiment in action, but one that has always stuck with me is drawn from Aquinas. In the Supplement to the Summa (question 94), Aquinas considers the ways in which those in Heaven will rejoice in their knowledge that others will be damned. Nietzsche is, perhaps, too harsh on this passage—Christianity is his bête noire—and Aquinas does say that the saved will not rejoice in the punishment of others as such, but only in knowing what could have happened to them but did not and in seeing Divine justice done.
That is, at least from the modern perspective, fairly dark stuff and Nietzsche uses it to argue that the religion of Love is actually a religion of Hate. I’m not endorsing dear Friedrich’s conclusions, but he points out something interesting here about traditional Christian conceptions of Hell and Heaven. Part of the joy of Heaven consists—even if it is indirectly so—in the fact that there are others in Hell, others who did not get in and have to suffer. You see this even today among those conservative Christians—I know mostly of Catholics—who get extremely angry when one of their co-religionists suggests that Hell will be not empty but very sparsely populated.
I think of this as a the velvet-rope theory of Heaven: it’s really only valuable if others can’t have it. If you take away its exclusivity, it isn't worth much. (Someone of a more biblical or theological bent might want to think through this is in the context of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.)
What, you might ask, has me thinking about this? Debates about marriage, I might reply.
It seems quite likely to me that same-sex marriage has a short future in the United States, at least in any sense stronger than just a license with no attendant rights or responsibilities. There are many arguments against state recognition of same-sex marriage and they come from different backgrounds. Some are full-throated religious arguments. Some rely heavily on tradition. Some rely on old-fashioned natural law. Many rely on the weird hybrid theory that is the new natural law. But many of them have as at least part of their content, a claim that the recognition—in civil law alone—is a harm to the institution of marriage and their own marriages. (See, for instance, link, but there are many more examples.)
Some of these last sort of arguments are worth thinking through even if we disagree with them, but very many of them amount to little more than a velvet-rope theory of marriage: if you let those people in, it will cheapen mine. We saw a version of this, of course, in arguments against miscegenation. Even if some opponents are right that same-sex marriage decreases the attractiveness of traditional marriage, it’s important to ask why that is.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

One quick thought about atomistic moral minimalism

Americans at least tend to elide the distinction between the law and ethics. Students, I find, often have a hard time maintaining the distinction and, when questioned about the morality of some action or practice, will respond by asking what the law says about it. Of course, there are important connections between the law and morality. Murder and theft and battery are all illegal and they are immoral.
But, this elision leads to a common problem in our moral thinking. Quite rightly, our laws are premised on negative rights. That is, I have a (legal) right to life and this means that ceteris paribus you may not kill me. I have a legal right to property and this means that ceteris paribus you may not take my property away from me. These rights give me no legal claim for your assistance in my living nor in the acquisition or maintenance of my property. I have relatively few positive (legal) rights.
If you take that as the basis of your moral thinking—if you can't distinguish between legal and moral thinking—you end up with an extremely atomistic account of morality. You end up with a moral minimalism that is indistinguishable from ethical egoism. You end up thinking that my only obligation to another person is to keep out of their way and that there is no deeper connection between us except that requirement.
I fear that's where we've gotten as a society. I think this prevents any real kind of human flourishing. I think it vastly underestimates our intrinsic sociality and the obligations we have to the society through which we have come to be. To put it in the word of a now-prominent figure, I think it is: "Sad!"