The Violent Narcissism of Small Differences

“As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups.”
~ Robert Sapolsky

There are “many features of… warfare that turn out to be shared with wars in many other traditional societies… Those shared features include the following ones… So-called tribal warfare is often or usually actually intra-tribal, between groups speaking the same language and sharing the same culture, rather than inter-tribal. Despite that cultural similarity or identity between the antagonists, one’s enemies are sometimes demonized as subhuman.” (Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday, p. 120)

That isn’t something I’ve heard before. I’m surprised it isn’t a point brought up more often. It entirely undermines the case for racism being biological and instinctual. This intra-tribal warfare involves people who are extremely similar — in terms of ethnicity/culture, linguistics, lifestyle, diet, health, genetics, etc (and one would presume also in terms of epigenetics and microbiome). They are more similar to one another than is the rather diverse population of white Americans. Yet these basically identical tribal bands are able to not just see each other as different but even as subhuman, not that ‘subhuman’ has a scientific meaning in this context. It gives credence to Freud’s theory of the narcissism of small differences.

In modern nation-states, we forget how abnormal is every aspect of our society. Based on unrepresentative WEIRD research, we’ve come to some strange conclusions about human nature. Looking at the anthropological record demonstrates how far off from reality is our modern understanding. We think of warfare as only or primarily occurring between nation-states and we think of nation-states in ethno-racial terms. The world wars were fought with rhetoric declaring the other side to be of a different race or not fully human. That happened between the English and Germans who today are thought of as being so similar, what we now think of as white Westerners. But perceived differences has never had much to do with objective reality.

We should also put violence in perspective. We obsess over some violence while ignoring other violence. Most killings happen within societies, not between societies (unless your one of the populations historically targeted by Western imperialism). And most killings happen within specific demographics, not between demographics. For example, most American whites are killed by American whites, not by foreign terrorists or American blacks. About terrorism, most of it is committed by Americans against Americans; in fact, often whites against whites.

Race is as much a rationalization of violence than it is a cause. Westerners wanted to steal land and resources, to exploit populations. So, they invented racial ideology to justify it. But this basic tendency toward justification of violence is nothing new. As Jared Diamond describes, even groups that are essentially the same will use othering language in order to psychologically distance themselves. Otherwise, it would be harder to kill people. But creating perceived differences is quite simple (as shown numerous times: Jane Elliott’s eye color experiment, Rebecca Bigler’s shirt color experiment, Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment*, etc).

Race is a social construct and a rather recent invention at that — for certain, it didn’t exist in the ancient world. There is nothing in human nature that demonstrates an instinct for racism. Rather, what humans are talented at is seeing differences and turning them into categories. This could be as simple as where one lives, such as two tribal bands or two neighborhood gangs fighting. Or it could be based on what clothes are worn and, when people are too similar, they will create artificial differences such as gang colors. But once we’ve created these differences, our minds treat them as essential. We need to learn to step back from our learned biases.

* * *

* For additional insight, there is more recent analysis of the Robbers Cave experiment. It is The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment by Gina Perry. Along with a book excerpt at The Guardian, David Shariatmadari has a book review of it, A real-life Lord of the Flies: the troubling legacy of the Robbers Cave experiment.

It isn’t only that the researchers were partly, albeit questionably, successful in creating perceived differences but that it took a second attempt in highly manipulating the boys to finally get them to see the others as ‘other’. The moral of the story is it can require immense effort to creative divisiveness and conflict because, without intervening factors such as severe external stressors, humans naturally seek to bond with one another. Separate identities based on social categories often don’t emerge organically but typically have to be enforced upon a population by those with power, authority, and influence.

As Shariatmdari wrote:

The robustness of the boy’s “civilised” values came as a blow to Sherif, making him angry enough to want to punch one of his young academic helpers. It turned out that the strong bonds forged at the beginning of the camp weren’t easily broken. Thankfully, he never did start the forest fire – he aborted the experiment when he realised it wasn’t going to support his hypothesis. […]

If Middle Grove and Robbers Cave aren’t scientifically rigorous, does that mean they’re of no value? Perry doesn’t think so. “There was a kind of breadth of vision about Robbers Cave that is very much missing in that tightly controlled laboratory deception of something like Milgram. He was trying to tackle big issues.”

And, from today’s perspective, perhaps there is some reassurance to be gleaned from boys’ behaviour at Middle Grove. Despite attempts to influence them that a Russian troll farm would be proud of, they remained independent-minded and did what they thought was best.

“I do think it is a kind of optimistic view,” says Perry. “It makes you smile, doesn’t it? The fact that they mutinied against these guys, really, and refused to be drawn into it.”

* * *

Why Your Brain Hates Other People
by Robert Sapolsky, Nautilis

We all have multiple dichotomies in our heads, and ones that seem inevitable and crucial can, under the right circumstances, evaporate in an instant.

Lessening the Impact of Us/Them-ing

So how can we make these dichotomies evaporate? Some thoughts:

Contact: The consequences of growing up amid diversity just discussed bring us to the effects of prolonged contact on Us/Theming. In the 1950s the psychologist Gordon Allport proposed “contact theory.” Inaccurate version: bring Us-es and Thems together (say, teenagers from two hostile nations in a summer camp), animosities disappear, similarities start to outweigh differences, everyone becomes an Us. More accurate version: put Us and Thems together under narrow circumstances and something sort of resembling that happens, but you can also blow it and worsen things.

Some of the effective narrower circumstances: each side has roughly equal numbers; everyone’s treated equally and unambiguously; contact is lengthy and on neutral territory; there are “superordinate” goals where everyone works together on a meaningful task (say, summer campers turning a meadow into a soccer field).

Even then, effects are typically limited—Us-es and Thems quickly lose touch, changes are transient and often specific—“I hate those Thems, but I know one from last summer who’s actually a good guy.” Where contact really causes fundamental change is when it is prolonged. Then we’re making progress.

Approaching the implicit: If you want to lessen an implicit Us/Them response, one good way is priming beforehand with a counter-stereotype (e.g., a reminder of a beloved celebrity Them). Another approach is making the implicit explicit—show people their implicit biases. Another is a powerful cognitive tool—perspective taking. Pretend you’re a Them and explain your grievances. How would you feel? Would your feet hurt after walking a mile in their shoes?

Replace essentialism with individuation: In one study, white subjects were asked about their acceptance of racial inequalities. Half were first primed toward essentialist thinking, being told, “Scientists pinpoint the genetic underpinnings of race.” Half heard an anti-essentialist prime—“Scientists reveal that race has no genetic basis.” The latter made subjects less accepting of inequalities.

Flatten hierarchies: Steep ones sharpen Us/Them differences, as those on top justify their status by denigrating the have-nots, while the latter view the ruling class as low warmth/high competence. For example, the cultural trope that the poor are more carefree, in touch with and able to enjoy life’s simple pleasures while the rich are unhappy, stressed, and burdened with responsibility (think of miserable Scrooge and those happy-go-lucky Cratchits). Likewise with the “they’re poor but loving” myth of framing the poor as high warmth/low competence. In one study of 37 countries, the greater the income inequality, the more the wealthy held such attitudes.

Some Conclusions

From massive barbarity to pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet, I don’t think our goal should be to “cure” us of all Us/Them dichotomizing (separate of it being impossible, unless you have no amygdala).

I’m fairly solitary—I’ve spent a lot of my life living alone in a tent in Africa, studying another species. Yet some of my most exquisitely happy moments have come from feeling like an Us, feeling accepted, safe, and not alone, feeling part of something large and enveloping, with a sense of being on the right side and doing both well and good. There are even Us/Thems that I—eggheady, meek, and amorphously pacifistic—would kill or die for.

If we accept that there will always be sides, it’s challenging to always be on the side of angels. Distrust essentialism. Remember that supposed rationality is often just rationalization, playing catch-up with subterranean forces we never suspect. Focus on shared goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate. And recall how often, historically, the truly malignant Thems hid themselves while making third parties the fall guy.

Meanwhile, give the right-of-way to people driving cars with the “Mean people suck” bumper sticker, and remind everyone that we’re in this together against Lord Voldemort and House Slytherin.


Self, Other, & World

The New Science of the Mind:
From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
Kindle Locations 54-62

The new way of thinking about the mind is inspired by, and organized around, not the brain but some combination of the ideas that mental processes are (1) embodied, (2) embedded, (3) enacted, and (4) extended. Shaun Gallagher has referred to this, in conversation, as the 4e conception of the mind.4 The idea that mental processes are embodied is, very roughly, the idea that they are partly constituted by, partly made up of, wider (i.e., extraneural) bodily structures and processes. The idea that mental processes cesses are embedded is, again roughly, the idea that mental processes have been designed to function only in tandem with a certain environment that lies outside the brain of the subject. In the absence of the right environmental mental scaffolding, mental processes cannot do what they are supposed to do, or can only do what they are supposed to so less than optimally. The idea that mental processes are enacted is the idea that they are made up not just of neural processes but also of things that the organism does more generally-that they are constituted in part by the ways in which an organism ism acts on the world and the ways in which world, as a result, acts back on that organism. The idea that mental processes are extended is the idea that they are not located exclusively inside an organism’s head but extend out, in various ways, into the organism’s environment.

On animism, multinaturalism, & cosmopolitics
by Adrian J Ivakhiv

If, as Latour argues, we are no longer to rely on the singular foundation of a nature that speaks to us through the singular voice of science, then we are thrown into a world in which humans are thought to resemble, in some measure, all other entities (think Darwin alongside Amazonian shamanism) and to radically differ, though in ways that are bridgeable through translation. This would be a world that demands an ontological politics, or a cosmopolitics, by which the choices open to us with respect to the different ways we can entangle ourselves with places, non-humans, technologies, and the material world as a whole, become ethically inflected open questions.

Can “Late Antiquity” Be Saved?
by Philip Rousseau

This issue of a Eurocentric “take” on the late Roman world now finds itself swept up into what has been termed the “ontological turn,” which I suppose is where the “new humanities” come in. More and more people are becoming familiar with this debate. It centers chiefly on a conviction that, in any one place at any one time, the people alive there and then had a sense of “reality” — a word we’re quite rightly not entirely happy with — that was unique to themselves. Indeed, more than a sense: their understanding of “that which is the case” was not simply a symbolizing reaction to a set of experiences that we otherwise share with them although respond to differently — that is, the material, anthropocentric, individualized world that we tend to suppose has always been “out there.” They (like many now) lived in a world (rather than just in a frame of mind) that was itself totally different from the world that we (whoever “we” are) experience. Actually (another tell-tale word), phenomenology, cognitive science, and quantum physics, if nothing else, have shown us what a far from enduring particularity the “out there” world is.

Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:
The Case for an Ontological Turn
by Greg Anderson

Our discipline’s grand historicist project, its commitment to producing a kind of cumulative biography of our species, imposes strict limits on the kinds of stories we can tell about the past. Most immediately, our histories must locate all of humanity’s diverse lifeworlds within the bounds of a single, universal “real world” of time, space, and experience. To do this, they must render experiences in all those past lifeworlds duly commensurable and mutually intelligible. And to do this, our histories must use certain commonly accepted models and categories, techniques and methods. The fundamental problem here is that all of these tools of our practice presuppose a knowledge of experience that is far from universal, as postcolonial theorists and historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have so well observed. In effect, these devices require us to “translate” the experiences of all past lifeworlds into the experiences of just one lifeworld, namely those of a post-Enlightenment “Europe,” the world of our own secular, capitalist modernity. In so doing, they actively limit our ability to represent the past’s many non-secular, non-capitalist, non-modern “ways of being
human.” […]

This ontological individualism would have been scarcely intelligible to, say, the inhabitants of precolonial Bali or Hawai’i, where the divine king or chief, the visible incarnation of the god Lono, was “the condition of possibility of the community,” and thus “encompasse[d] the people in his own person, as a projection of his own being,” such that his subjects were all “particular instances of the chief’s existence.”
12 It would have been barely imaginable, for that matter, in the world of medieval Europe, where conventional wisdom proverbially figured sovereign and subjects as the head and limbs of a single, primordial “body politic” or corpus mysticum. 13 And the idea of a natural, presocial individual would be wholly confounding to, say, traditional Hindus and the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea, who objectify all persons as permeable, partible “dividuals” or “social microcosms,” as provisional embodiments of all the actions, gifts, and accomplishments of others that have made their lives possible.1

We alone in the modern capitalist west, it seems, regard individuality as the true, primordial estate of the human person. We alone believe that humans are always already unitary, integrated selves, all born with a natural, presocial disposition to pursue a rationally calculated self-interest and act competitively upon our no less natural, no less presocial rights to life, liberty, and private property. We alone are thus inclined to see forms of sociality, like relations of kinship, nationality, ritual, class, and so forth, as somehow contingent, exogenous phenomena, not as essential constituents of our very subjectivity, of who or what we really are as beings. And we alone believe that social being exists to serve individual being, rather than the other way round. Because we alone imagine that individual humans are free-standing units in the first place, “unsocially sociable” beings who ontologically precede whatever “society” our self-interest prompts us to form at any given time.

Beyond Nature and Culture
by Philippe Descola
Kindle Locations 241-262.

Not so very long ago one could delight in the curiosities of the world without making any distinction between the information obtained from observing animals and that which the mores of antiquity or the customs of distant lands presented. “Nature was one” and reigned everywhere, distributing equally among humans and nonhumans a multitude of technical skills, ways of life, and modes of reasoning. Among the educated at least, that age came to an end a few decades after Montaigne’s death, when nature ceased to be a unifying arrangement of things, however disparate, and became a domain of objects that were subject to autonomous laws that formed a background against which the arbitrariness of human activities could exert its many-faceted fascination. A new cosmology had emerged, a prodigious collective invention that provided an unprecedented framework for the development of scientific thought and that we, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, continue, in a rather offhand way, to protect. The price to be paid for that simplification included one aspect that it has been possible to overlook, given that we have not been made to account for it: while the Moderns were discovering the lazy propensity of barbaric and savage peoples to judge everything according to their own particular norms, they were masking their own ethnocentricity behind a rational approach to knowledge, the errors of which at that time escaped notice. It was claimed that everywhere and in every age, an unchanging mute and impersonal nature established its grip, a nature that human beings strove to interpret more or less plausibly and from which they endeavored to profit, with varying degrees of success. Their widely diverse conventions and customs could now make sense only if they were related to natural regularities that were more or less well understood by those affected by them. It was decreed, but with exemplary discretion, that our way of dividing up beings and things was a norm to which there were no exceptions. Carrying forward the work of philosophy, of whose predominance it was perhaps somewhat envious, the fledgling discipline of anthropology ratified the reduction of the multitude of existing things to two heterogeneous orders of reality and, on the strength of a plethora of facts gathered from every latitude, even bestowed upon that reduction the guarantee of universality that it still lacked. Almost without noticing, anthropology committed itself to this way of proceeding, such was the fascination exerted by the shimmering vision of “cultural diversity,” the listing and study of which now provided it with its raison d’être. The profusion of institutions and modes of thought was rendered less formidable and its contingency more bearable if one took the view that all these practices— the logic of which was sometimes so hard to discover— constituted so many singular responses to a universal challenge: namely, that of disciplining and profiting from the biophysical potentialities offered by bodies and their environment.

What Kinship Is-And Is Not
by Marshall Sahlins
p. 2

In brief, the idea of kinship in question is “mutuality of being”: people who are intrinsic to one another’s existence— thus “mutual person(s),” “life itself,” “intersubjective belonging,” “transbodily being,” and the like. I argue that “mutuality of being” will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether “consanguineal” or “affinal,” as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, “mutuality of being” will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds— of the kind often called “mystical”— whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.

The Habitus Process
A Biopsychosocial Conception
By Andreas Pickel

The habitus-personality complex is linked (at the top) to a social system. As I have proposed earlier, habitus is an emergent property of a social system. The habitus-personality complex is also linked (at the bottom) to a biopsychic system which generates a personality as an emergent property. Thus there is a bottom-up causality and a top-down causality at work. The habitus-personality complex, while composed of two emergent properties (bottom-up: personality; top down: habitus), can also be seen as a process. In this view, the habitus mechanism refers to the working of system-specific patterns of wanting, feeling, thinking, doing and interacting, while the personality mechanism refers to individual forms of wanting, feeling, thinking, doing and interacting. The two simultaneously operating mechanisms produce self-consciousness and identity, and what Elias calls the “we”-“I” balance in a personality (Elias 1991).

How Forests Think:
Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
By Eduardo Kohn
p. 6

Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. The goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans— language, culture, society, and history— and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans.

Vibrant Matter:
A Political Ecology of Things
by Jane Bennett
pp. 8-10

I may have met a relative of Odradek while serving on a jury, again in Baltimore, for a man on trial for attempted homicide. It was a small glass vial with an adhesive-covered metal lid: the Gunpowder Residue Sampler. This object/ witness had been dabbed on the accused’s hand hours after the shooting and now offered to the jury its microscopic evidence that the hand had either fired a gun or been within three feet of a gun firing. Expert witnesses showed the sampler to the jury several times, and with each appearance it exercised more force, until it became vital to the verdict. This composite of glass, skin cells, glue, words, laws, metals, and human emotions had become an actant. Actant, recall, is Bruno Latour’s term for a source of action; an actant can be human or not, or, most likely, a combination of both. Latour defines it as “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general.” 24 An actant is neither an object nor a subject but an “intervener,” 25 akin to the Deleuzean “quasi-causal operator.” 26 An operator is that which, by virtue of its particular location in an assemblage and the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time, makes the difference, makes things happen, becomes the decisive force catalyzing an event. Actant and operator are substitute words for what in a more subject-centered vocabulary are called agents. Agentic capacity is now seen as differentially distributed across a wider range of ontological types. This idea is also expressed in the notion of “deodand,” a figure of English law from about 1200 until it was abolished in 1846. In cases of accidental death or injury to a human, the nonhuman actant, for example, the carving knife that fell into human flesh or the carriage that trampled the leg of a pedestrian— became deodand (literally, “that which must be given to God”). In recognition of its peculiar efficacy (a power that is less masterful than agency but more active than recalcitrance), the deodand, a materiality “suspended between human and thing,” 27 was surrendered to the crown to be used (or sold) to compensate for the harm done. According to William Pietz, “any culture must establish some procedure of compensation, expiation, or punishment to settle the debt created by unintended human deaths whose direct cause is not a morally accountable person, but a nonhuman material object. This was the issue thematized in public discourse by . . . the law of deodand.” 28

There are of course differences between the knife that impales and the man impaled, between the technician who dabs the sampler and the sampler, between the array of items in the gutter of Cold Spring Lane and me, the narrator of their vitality. But I agree with John Frow that these differences need “to be flattened, read horizontally as a juxtaposition rather than vertically as a hierarchy of being. It’s a feature of our world that we can and do distinguish . . . things from persons. But the sort of world we live in makes it constantly possible for these two sets of kinds to exchange properties.” 29 And to note this fact explicitly, which is also to begin to experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally, is to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility.

pp. 20-21

Thing-power perhaps has the rhetorical advantage of calling to mind a childhood sense of the world as filled with all sorts of animate beings, some human, some not, some organic, some not. It draws attention to an efficacy of objects in excess of the human meanings, designs, or purposes they express or serve. Thing-power may thus be a good starting point for thinking beyond the life-matter binary, the dominant organizational principle of adult experience. The term’s disadvantage, however, is that it also tends to overstate the thinginess or fixed stability of materiality, whereas my goal is to theorize a materiality that is as much force as entity, as much energy as matter, as much intensity as extension. Here the term out-side may prove more apt. Spinoza’s stones, an absolute Wild, the oozing Meadowlands, the nimble Odradek, the moving deodand, a processual minerality, an incalculable nonidentity— none of these are passive objects or stable entities (though neither are they intentional subjects). 1 They allude instead to vibrant materials.

A second, related disadvantage of thing-power is its latent individualism, by which I mean the way in which the figure of “thing” lends itself to an atomistic rather than a congregational understanding of agency While the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces. A lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities.

Animism – The Seed Of Religion
by Edward Clodd
Kindle Locations 363-369

In the court held in ancient times in the Prytaneum at Athens to try any object, such as an axe or a piece of wood or stone which, independent of any human agency, had caused death, the offending thing was condemned and cast in solemn form beyond the border. Dr. Frazer cites the amusing instance of a cock which was tried at Basle in 1474 for having laid an egg, and which, being found guilty, was burnt as a sorcerer. ” The recorded pleadings in the case are said to be very voluminous.” And only as recently as 1846 there was abolished in England the law of deodand, whereby not only a beast that kills a man, but a cart-wheel that runs over him, or a tree that crushes him, were deo dandus, or ” given to God,” being forfeited and sold for the poor. The adult who, in momentary rage, kicks over the chair against which he has stumbled, is one with the child who beats the door against which he knocks his head, or who whips the ” naughty ” rocking-horse that throws him.

Architectural Agents:
The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings
by Annabel Jane Wharton
Kindle Locations 148-155

The deodand was common in medieval legal proceedings. Before the recognition of mitigating circumstances and degrees of murder and manslaughter, causing the death of a person was a capital offense. At that time the deodand may well have functioned as a legal ploy by which the liability for a death might be assessed in a just manner. Although the deodand seems to have almost disappeared in England by the eighteenth century, the law was revived in the nineteenth century. With industrialization the deodand was redeployed as a means of levying penalties for the many deaths caused by mechanical devices, particularly locomotives. 9 Legislation was passed to protect industrial interests, and the deodand was eliminated by an act of Parliament in 1846. Premodern intuitions about the animation of things allowed those things a semblance of the moral agency associated with culpability. With the rational repression of that intuition in modernity, the legal system required revision.

Kindle Locations 245-253

Now, as in the past, buildings may be immobile, but they are by no means passive. Our habitus— the way we live in the world— is certainly informed by our relations with other human beings. 24 But spatial objects also model our lives. Some structures, like Bentham’s infamous Panopticon, are insidiously manipulative. 25 But most buildings, like most people, can both confirm our familiar patterns of behavior and modify them. We build a classroom to accommodate a certain kind of learning; the classroom in turn molds the kind of learning that we do or even that we can imagine. Modifications in the room might lead to innovations in teaching practices. Buildings, in this sense, certainly have social agency. Indeed, the acts of buildings may be compared with the acts of their human counterparts insofar as those acts are similarly overdetermined— that is, fraught with more conditions in their social circumstances or individual histories than are necessary to account for the ways in which they work.

Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
by Timothy Morton
Kindle Locations 547-568

While hyperobjects are near, they are also very uncanny. Some days, global warming fails to heat me up. It is strangely cool or violently stormy. My intimate sensation of prickling heat at the back of my neck is only a distorted print of the hot hand of global warming. I do not feel “at home” in the biosphere. Yet it surrounds me and penetrates me, like the Force in Star Wars. The more I know about global warming, the more I realize how pervasive it is. The more I discover about evolution, the more I realize how my entire physical being is caught in its meshwork. Immediate, intimate symptoms of hyperobjects are vivid and often painful, yet they carry with them a trace of unreality. I am not sure where I am anymore. I am at home in feeling not at home. Hyperobjects, not some hobbit hole, not some national myth of the homeland, have finally forced me to see the truth in Heidegger.

The more I struggle to understand hyperobjects, the more I discover that I am stuck to them. They are all over me. They are me. I feel like Neo in The Matrix, lifting to his face in horrified wonder his hand coated in the mirrorlike substance into which the doorknob has dissolved, as his virtual body begins to disintegrate. “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” The mirror itself has become part of my flesh. Or rather, I have become part of the mirror’s flesh, reflecting hyperobjects everywhere. I can see data on the mercury and other toxins in my blood. At Taipei Airport, a few weeks after the Fukushima disaster, I am scanned for radiation since I have just transited in Tokyo. Every attempt to pull myself free by some act of cognition renders me more hopelessly stuck to hyperobjects. Why?

They are already here. I come across them later, I find myself poisoned with them, I find my hair falling out. Like an evil character in a David Lynch production, or a ghost in M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, hyperobjects haunt my social and psychic space with an always-already. My normal sense of time as a container, or a racetrack, or a street, prevents me from noticing this always-already, from which time oozes and flows, as I shall discuss in a later section (“ Temporal Undulation”). What the demonic Twin Peaks character Bob reveals, for our purposes, is something about hyperobjects, perhaps about objects in general. 2 Hyperobjects are agents. 3 They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causalities flow like electricity.

We haven’t thought this way about things since the days of Plato.

The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal

This interview about the ‘monstrous’ made me think of a related idea. The monstrous is a more extreme version of the ‘impure’, whether impure in terms of the physical, psychological, social, religious, etc. The monstrous and the impure are both in some way ‘wrong’ at a gut level. They just feel wrong causing an instinctual response to get away from the perceived source of danger… or else to force it to get away from us, to attack it, to banish it.

The reason the idea of the ‘impure’ came to my mind was because of research I’ve seen on ideology. Conservatives have a stronger disgust response. The research I recall had to do with rotting fruit. To conservatives, this was more likely to be responded to with disgust. This makes sense in that rotten food has the potential to cause sickness, but rotten fruit is hardly an unusual experience. Anyone who keeps fruit around the house regularly experiences fruit that is in varying states of rot. It’s just what fruit does when it sits around long enough.

This is also interesting in that rotting fruit is the cause of alcohol. Learning how to make alcohol was one of humanity’s greatest discoveries. More importantly, alcohol has the ability to alter our consciousness (often making us more ‘open’ which is a trait related to liberalism) and this is probably the reason alcohol has been associated with the divine and with religious rituals.

So, rotting fruit doesn’t only endanger our physical health. It also endangers us through its potential to alter our minds, to connect us to realms unknown and uncontrollable. Dionysus, after all, is the God of wine. To the modern (especially the modern conservative religious type), a God like Dionysus is a bit on the monstrous side.

This makes me wonder what has become of the monstrous. In the Old Testament, Yahweh wasn’t disconnected from the monstrous. We moderns tend to see fear as being somehow unacceptable. This is even true for modern conservatives who often portray God as lacking the true horrific power that Yahweh had in the distant past.

The liberal tends to not have much understanding or respect for the monstrous/impure. The liberal response to rotten fruit is to be curious. As a liberal, I highly recommend this response. However, I also wonder if something is lost when fear isn’t given a place in our values and beliefs, in our religious conceptions.

This is why I’ve been drawn to the imaginal. The imaginal is the realm of the trickster, neither this nor that or else maybe both.

The trickster has always had an liminal role, often a being above or greater than or prior to humans and also below or lesser than or progeny of the Gods. Godmen, both God and man, like Jesus tend to have Trickster qualities. Other beings, neither God nor man, such as Prometheus and Loki also tend to have Trickster qualities.

Depending on the culture, the Trickster may be perceived as either good or evil, either as defender of religious/social purity or as tempter/deceiver. Take Dionysus for example. He originally was worshipped by one group, but deemed dangerous by others, especially those in power who would attempt to deny him. With the Romans, he was turned into Bacchus who was less overtly divine. Dionysus, however, lived on in another form as many of his attributes were inherited by and made into more human form with Jesus Christ.

Humans have always been wary of the imaginal. It’s disconcerting to come face to face with something unknown and not be able to discern whether it is friend or foe. It’s easier to make an arbitrary designation one way or the other and create social boundaries and cultural norms to protect against it. Most often, especially for the conservative, this means the imaginal gets portrayed as evil or dangerous. The liberal goes the opposite direction by often dismissing the imaginal entirely. Neither side necessarily takes the imaginal seriously on its own terms.

God: Suffering and Longing

Posted on Dec 30th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Explorer Marmalade
God’s Goodness is man’s suffering by which I’m not implying the good and bad as theological beliefs.  Its the ideal of Goodness (via our longing for it) that creates dissatisfaction of this world.  Even so, this tendency to idealize and to long is natural to the human psyche.  God or our experience of God isn’t in opposition to this earthly existence.

The reason that such immense ideals have an “otheworldly” feel to them is because God is the ultimate Other… which isn’t the same as saying God is separate.  This Other can also be experienced inwardly (if such a word applies), but this doesn’t change the esential Otherness.  God’s Goodness isn’t human goodness meaning it isn’t comprehensible in everyday terms nor can it be conformed to our purposes.  God undermines our entire sense of self and reality which isn’t a bad thing per se, but  its hard to interpret such an experience according to our normal beliefs and expectations of goodness. 

This world of suffering is Hell and our complicity with suffering is Evil.  I use these strong words because only they can convey the power of suffering when felt deeply.  But, by this, I don’t mean to assume any particular theological claims.  And, yet, I do mean to say that essentially both the Christians and Gnostics are right about God.  Thusly, without logical consistency and without psychological reconciliation, I accept my inability to separate my experience of suffering from my experience of that which is other than suffering… whatever one may wish to call it.

Or, anyways, this is what makes sense to me at the moment.  Unlike a pessimist of a materialist bent, I don’t deny any metaphysical possibility.  I have experienced something that felt like an Other.  Was it God?  Was it even good in the ultimate sense?  I don’t know.  It felt real… and, in this world of confusion, a glimpse of reality may be the closest one gets to the Good.

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Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 2 hours later

Marmalade said

There is only one essential statement in this whole blog:The Good of God is not the good of man. Its just my experience and that is all.

The only other choice is to go entirely with the Gnostics and call God Evil… which Icould agree with in the sense that they speak of the god of this world. The problem with the latter interpretation is such dualism doesn’t make sense of my experience, but maybe the Gnostics didn’t believe it as a fact… instead as something like a useful means.

What I do know is that this world is filled with immeasurable suffering. Yet, when I explore this suffering, I discover something other than any normal sense of this world.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 17 hours later

Nicole said

I think too often we ignore or gloss over this Otherness and its implications.

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

about 20 hours later

Marmalade said

Part of me would say that I’m exaggerating too much, but there is a purpose for my doing so. Suffering, strangely enough, can be one of the easiest things to ignore or distract ourselves from. This is as true for me as for anyone else.

There is something freeing about simply stating that this world is hell. I spent years struggling against suffering, but I feel that struggle has become less. Whatam I freed from? I’m not entirely sure. An element of it has to do with imagination. For me, to imagine what might be is founded upon seeing things as they are. So, in allowing hell to be real, I can imagine heaven. Or something like that.

In case you were wondering, this blog actually wasn’t intended as a direct response to the guilt thread in the God pod. This is just an extension of my recent thinking. I wrote this down in my journalaround a week agoand finally got around to writing it up.

The direct inspiration of this post is the essential statement I mentioned. I’ve had that thought for a long time. The realization that the Good of God isn’t the good of man came to me during a time (which we’ve talked about before)when I had fully relented to my own experience of suffering and longing, but I also feared losing myself in this experience of Other. I didn’t feel capable (or willing) to stay with this experience. Nonetheless, the memory of it is very clear and an everpresent reality of sorts… even if I haven’t yet come to terms with it.