NGC 3314: When Galaxies OIverlap ImageThis is how nature works – infinite power and a unity of contradictions
youth and rebellion
“In our youthful years we still venerate and despise without the art of nuance, which is the best gain of life, and we have rightly to do hard penance for having fallen upon men and things with Yea and Nay. Everything is so arranged that the worst of all tastes, the taste for the unconditional, is cruelly befooled and abused, until a man learns to introduce a little art into his sentiments […] The angry and reverent spirit peculiar to youth appears to allow itself no peace, until it has suitably falsified men and things, to be able to vent its passion upon them: youth in itself even, is something falsifying and deceptive.
Later on, when the young soul, tortured by continual disillusions, finally turns suspiciously against itself – still ardent and savage even in its suspicion and remorse of conscience: how it upbraids itself, how impatiently it tears itself, how it revenges itself for its long self-blinding, as though it had been a voluntary blindness! In this transition one punishes oneself by distrust of one’s sentiments, one tortures one’s enthusiasm with doubt, one feels even the good conscience to be a danger, as if it were the self-concealment and lassitude of a more refined uprightness; and above all, one espouses upon principle the cause against “youth”.
A decade later, one comprehends that all this was also still – youth!”Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 31
Nietzsche’s writings has this ability to take you on a journey through time and revisit all the emotions at each separate stage of the journey. And sometimes, the combination of words and ideas is exactly what you needed at that time. This one in particular I encountered on my way home from catching up with an old friend and talking about adult-stuff like entering the working world, graduating university, and marriage. And along came this aphorism that summarises the stages of my psychological development – from late childhood, to my adolescence, and to my early twenties up until the present.
In one passage alone, I experienced the rage and resentment of my youth and thought about its outward manifestations; I relived the guilt and shame of the time when this resentment turned inward. And in that last sentence I laughed at Nietzsche’s brutally honest call-out of my own psyche … but I also experienced a sensation of Peace, as I became aware of my present moment as part of a metamorphosis—shedding the skin of youth to become a more complete version of me in the future.
The childhood of our species ended with the Enlightenment
Excerpts from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), on the impact of secularisation on the construction and loss of meaning.
“In the enlightened world, mythology has entered into the profane. In its blank purity, the reality which has been cleansed of demons and their conceptual descendants assumes the numinous character which the ancient world attributed to demons. Under the title of brute facts, the social injustice from which they proceed is now as assuredly sacred a preserve as the medicine man was sacrosanct by reason of the protection of his gods.”
Despite the Enlightenment’s entirely secular worldview, Adorno and Horkheimer argue here that in the post-secular world the categories of phenomena described by myths had merely been transferred to secular forms. Getting rid of god, angels, and demons does not mean we get rid of the phenomena they attempt to capture, which is inextricably linked to the evolution of our species. The degree of social injustice, ecological harm, and other absurdities of global capital, for instance, exists for purely secular reasons, such as the rational choice of individual actors within the system. But the senseless evil brought about by its effects on social relations as well as the planet can be mythologised as the work of demons. Similarly, the actions of nation-states is legitimised through entirely secular ideologies – the Constitution, the social contract, the legal authority of the sovereign. And yet our level of trust in the state as the source of our social norms and values can be mythologised as our faith in a seemingly omnipotent God, one which we worship even at the expense of our own interests.
Animism spiritualised the object, whereas industrialism objectifies the spirits of men. Since, with the end of free exchange, commodities lost all their economic qualities except for fetishism, the latter has extended its arthritic influence over all aspects of social life. Through the countless agencies of mass production and its culture the conventionalised modes of behaviour are impressed on the individual as the only natural, respectable, and rational ones. He defines himself only as a thing, a static element, as success or failure. His yardstick is self-preservation, successful or unsuccessful approximation to the objectivity of his function and the models established for it…
Adorno and Horkheimer then look more closely at how secular domination has changed the relationship of humans to the world of objects by comparing animism and industrialisation. Animism assigns spiritual categories of meaning to the object world – a tree is a tree, but it also contains spirits that give this tree its cultural significance and meaning. In contrast, industrialism, supported by the secular Enlightenment ideology that had completely abolished the spirit, had objectified man as instruments for labor. A man is a man, but he is also required to perform his essential function of work, through which he is reduced into an object – a means to an end for a company, system etc. that is alienated from himself.
Paradoxically, the boundaries of consumer society (“the countless agencies of mass production and its culture”) ensures that the more the individual allows himself to be objectified in this way, the more his subjectivity is reaffirmed. For instance, a top graduate objectifies himself when he sells his soul to the highest bidder, but this act of self-objectification also allows him to fulfil his desires to own nice things and live in a comfortable suburban home with three kids. These desires are themselves part and parcel of the culture emerging from mass production – they are, after all, the ideal of self-affirmation promoted by advertising, popular music, and TV.
“The fatality by means of which prehistory sanctioned the incomprehensibility of death is transferred to wholly comprehensible real existence. The noontide panic fear in which men suddenly became aware of nature as totality has found its like in the panic which nowadays is ready to break out at every moment: men expect that the world, which is without any issue, will be set on fire by a totality which they themselves are and over which they have no control.”
The final excerpt looks at the impact of secularisation on a private and sacred affair – death. Death is a universal phenomenon, a reminder of the finitude of the human condition. Every culture throughout history, therefore, has had to find a way to make meaning out of it. From ideas of reincarnation to the concept of an otherworldly life, these myths served important purposes in the development of culture, such as providing comfort to social groups.
However, with the advent of the secular world this understanding had been discarded as just another myth. Through advances in biomedical knowledge and technology, for instance, death becomes something humans can control and delay. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that this power to control death does not dispel our fear nor increase our understanding of it. They use the example of a “panic fear which is nowadays ready to break out at every moment” – such as the ever-present possibility of getting run over by traffic or losing control over the car – to illustrate just how little the progress of the secular world has actually succeeded in providing more comfort at the thought of death.
The myths that the Enlightenment age displaced entirely provided significance to the objects that surround us, allowing us to relate to them as something more than purely material commodities. They supported our core values by providing narratives that explain and justify them. In explaining inevitable phenomena like death, they also offered cohesion, comfort, and meaning to our communities. Reading these excerpts in class last week, I felt like I was mourning for this lost childhood age of humanity, when we understood the world through half-truths that were sufficient to satiate our curiosity, prevent our disillusionment, and provide us with motivation to guide our actions.
I thought about my misfortune of being born at a time when this childhood was long past, when these myths could no longer be believed in. What do I do with that fortune?
a million little philosopher-kings
Is there any point of a social science that’s not firmly embedded within the social?
We can observe that insights from natural science influences engineers, inventors, architects, vaccine and drug companies, etc. What would a similar downward diffusion look like in the realm of social science? Well, perhaps the insights from a criminologist about the arbitrariness of what constitutes a “crime” at all would inform social workers, legal reformers, politicians, voters, etc.
But this is no more than a utopian concern, for the way we conceive of social science is still so limited to ivory tower discussions, in spite of our best efforts. A social science that doesn’t itself actively take part in the social is ultimately wasted; its knife edge of criticism is blunted, and ultimately it amounts to little more than pedantry from an outsider’s point of view. Being “embedded within the social” implies chiefly a concern for justice… which itself implies an active engagement with the political concerns of one’s time and place. I don’t see this concern dominating academia today – at least not at the level it could or needs to be.
The ultimate outcome of a social science that alienates itself from the world around it is that its insights become alienating precisely to the social strata that would benefit most from it. At best, studies can be cited in research papers (itself by ‘independent’ think-tanks whose funding relies on corporate bodies — what independence?) and influence policy makers. At worst the alienated researcher within the field confuses their alienation for their objectivity – as if standing above society is a prerequisite to being able to discuss it (instead of, say, being involved in the workings that constitute said society).
Hello and welcome to occasionalthoughthaver!
I’m Faris from Malaysia and I’m currently a 3rd year undergraduate History and Politics student in London. I am currently working on a dissertation on 19th century German intellectual history, and I will be utilising this blog as a sounding board to track the progression of my ideas. If time allows, I also hope that this can be a space for me to talk about some other things that interest me.
For the most part, this blog will provide a space for me to build a writing habit. There are just too many fragmented ideas, memories, reflections, and thoughts that I felt could not be sufficiently expressed within the 280-characters that I had access to on Twitter, so it looks like this will be the best tool for me to improve my research, reflection, and writing skills all in one.
Here are some things I’m currently planning to write about:
- Dissertation tracker: where I can share what I’m reading for my diss and the state of my dissertation research.
- Weekly readings: very short posts. just short summary of top 3 things I’ve read in the week
- Book posts: sharing and possibly reviewing what I’m currently reading
- Reflective pieces: reflecting on my life and worldview so far with tools from my academic readings, religion, philosophy, etc.
- General posts: Life and community in London, short analysis of film/TV/music and culture more generally.
I acknowledge how ambitious this all sounds, but I wanted to write it all out as a way to hold myself accountable! As I’m just starting out, the form of it will be messy and inconsistent, but I hope I can still post things that will be of some value to whoever reads them.