Saturday, April 24, 2010

Freedom is a false hope given the finite nature of our reality

One of the predominant themes underlying much of postmodern political philosophy is that of freedom. If the practice of mainstream political discourse is the application of power as a means of molding the parameters and contours of reality itself into autopoetic dance of self-referentiality, then the role of the postmodern political actor is to fight back against the conforming embrace of that power via acts of true and novel freedom and creativity. […]
The problem; however, is that the pre-eminent postmodern philosophers fall prey to a subtle version of the very essentialism their own critiques are designed to counter. In the case of both Foucault and Delueze, the whole purpose behind any political action/discourse is to escape the panopticon of power and achieve a state of freedom and authenticity. […]

This trajectory of sincere political action assumes that just such a state exists and is possible to attain, a variant on the Manichean theology that supplants good and evil for power/oppressed and freedom. Experience, on the other hand, tells us that things are not so simple.
In reality, the ability to gain a degree of freedom is a sense of false hope held tight by those who have articulated the context bound nature of our understanding and, indeed, existence, but are unwilling to grapple with the ultimate and logical conclusion of those realizations. Not only our understanding of the world, but our very experience of and existence in the world are bound within the context of a particular set of experiences. We can seek to expand the boundaries of our experiences, but the finite nature of our reality makes the kind of omniscience required to overcome our contextual circumstances both physically and logically impossible.
To suggest that we can somehow escape the context of power accumulation and application is to suggest that, on some level, we are not involved in or a part of the fluctuations of that power, that our identities are not, in some senses, made up of and of the same confluence of forces that generate that power. But, as the postmodernists realized: context is king -- and those contexts that act as incubators for power and its machinations are the very same contexts that give birth to our own understandings and identities. (example? see above)
Whether we like it or not, we are stuck with -- or, perhaps, within -- those contexts. Us, our notions of authenticity and freedom, power, and the banalities of our every day lives, all part of the same basic process and intimately interconnected because they are in a constant and necessary state of interaction. This is the grizzly and natural conclusion of the postmodernist critique, Nietzsche's proclamation denotes it in no uncertain terms: God, and all his promises of salvation, are dead.

What Is Modernity?- A Sketch by Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 17 December 2009
But the relationship between Eros and Thanatos is a complicated one, as only a handful of philosophers have recognized. For it’s the perturbing agitating force of Thanatos that spurs and opens up Eros into further and further growth. Eros is thus the sublimation of the powerful destructive forces of Thanatos up and into creative emergence. As Freud says, Eros and Thanatos “never appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions and so become unrecognizable to our judgment” (42). Or as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze has put it- “Destruction, and the negative at work in destruction, always manifests itself as the other face of construction or unification… Beyond Eros we encounter Thanatos; beyond the ground, the abyss of the groundless; beyond the repetition that links, the repetition that erases and destroys. It is hardly surprising that Freud’s writings should be so complex” (43). Every system has three possibilities when it comes to responding to the disturbance of Thanatos: it can succumb to system dissolution; it can cling to its current organization in a fierce conservatism, and/or externalize the pressure outward in acts of aggression; or it can release into trans-formation and higher order levels of complexity. It’s crucial for modern civilization to accept that it will never evolve beyond this disturbing ‘dark side’ of our makeup- no matter how successfully we think we have banished it- for it’s the very engine of our own creative evolution. If we don’t admit to and accept the constant presence of Thanatos we’ll continue to suffer the ravages of its untamed release, which has been such a devastating feature of the modern era. As Terry Eagleton points out, “history is dependent upon powers that are perpetually capable of sinking it without a trace…In the forging of civilizations, the death drive is harnessed to soberly functional ends, growing strategic and astute; but it continues to betray a delight in power and destruction for their own sake, which continually threatens to undermine those ends…Civilization must pay homage to its other, not least because there is a sense in which it lives off it.” (44) […]

But when the Faustian bargain for growth and development is put in the service of only our own individual separate-self desires, we get mired in an endless chase that the Buddha called dukkha, or suffering (47). We end up inevitably in the realm of the hungry ghosts, always starving for more, trying vainly to fill the infinite emptiness exposed by separation. Unable to withstand the force of the inner pressure(Thanatos) demanding that we open up- that we move from our current evolutionary moment of individualism back toward a re-integration with the broader whole(s) of culture, earth and cosmos- many have turned to diversion, addiction, and excess in order to dispel the inner torment and be freed of this unsettling power. Massive amounts of energy has also been expelled outward into the business of profit making, endless accumulation, and bald personal ambition. Reason and order have often given way to disorder and chaos. “Reason can restrain our disruptive desires only by drawing its own energies from them, fuelling itself from this turbulent source…Being too aloof from those powers, it will fail to shape and inform them from within, and so will allow them to run riot” (48). Modernity has been convinced that it is a vehicle for Eros, bringing progress and prosperity to all through its spectacular growth and development; this is the ideological mask it has proudly worn. However, its emphasis on the individual and its devotion to a strict rationality have left it vulnerable to a fierce Thanatos, a profound and destructive nihilism that is eating at it from within. More and more, disintegration and demise have come to rule the day as the refusal to answer the evolutionary call continues (49). Eros is struggling to maintain a hold on the human story.

Postmodernity—in its later mostly European philosophical versions anyway—has had a significant interest in religion. Martin Heidegger awaited the god who was to come.  Emmanuel Levinas reformulated traditional Jewish Rabbinic religious and ethical concepts toward an experience of transcendence and care though he was still an atheist.  Famed father of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida wrote movingly in his later years on grief, friendship, and negative theology—again all within an officially atheistic framework.  Neo-Marxist thinker Slavoj Zizek calls his philosophy a (atheistic) materialist theology.  Jurgen Habermas—one of the philosophers who embodies a transition from postmodernity to post-postmodernity—has dialogued with The Pope recently and written on the ways in which secular minded and religious minded folk can live and work together in the future.
In other words, postmodernity argued forcefully that transcendence/salvation—were there to be any—must be found in this world not out of it.  The technical term for the divine within is called immanence.  Immanental transcendentalism is the great goal of postmodern religion—that means merging or finding transcendence within the world not through escaping it.

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