Psychosis/Enlightenment 2

MT, we started by talking about Plato, and you pondered what would happen if we stripped away our illusions. Would we end up as the Dalai Lama or as Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger? Would we spiral towards madness or find serenity?

So I pondered Plato. Reality is a manifold, with some layers more illusory than others. Plato found the sensory layer most illusory (as do the Buddhists I presume), but he didn’t see it in black and white terms (illusion bad, reality good). Even the sensory layer is an important first step, a pointer to the next layer, which then seems “real” to us until we get one step deeper, etc. MT, you’re becoming a Platonist despite your own resistance.

Note Plato’s assignment of sensory data to the lowest level (most illusory) of reality/truth seems to pit him against the empiricist epistemology that dominates our current Age of Science (late 17th century to present); however, one of the foremost thinkers of the emerging Age of Science, David Hume, who carried empiricism as far as it could logically go (much to the consternation and inspiration of Kant), concluded much the same – that following the truth of sensory data (empiricism) leads us to conclude that sensory data tells us nothing about the objective world “out there” but only tells us about the imprints some presumed world out there makes on our personal sensory registers. The only difference between Hume the empiricist and Plato the rationalist is that, after they’ve both deconstructed the idea of gaining knowledge about the world-as-it-really-is via sensory data, Plato seeks a deeper layer through rational inquiry while Hume says that’s the end of it and goes out for a pint and a game of backgammon (and my Scottish friends can take that as an insult or a compliment, as you will).

I like your Dalai Lama or Meursault reverie, but I’d go a step further and say that these are the utopic and dystopic outcomes, respectively, of stripping away our illusions.

Although at first glance it seems cute but false to say that madness equates to “stripped of illusions,” it seems believable when I think of illusions as filters. To lose all of your filters would seem a form of psychosis. Someone — was it Aldous Huxley in Doors of Perception? — suggested that consciousness itself evolved not as a way to increase access to the world but as a filter for limiting access to the world, for blocking all the “ambient noise” as it were, so we could focus on a smaller zone of input more efficiently. And if the Huxley/Doors reference is right, I think he went on to say that hallucinogenics remove filters, quite literally expanding the scope of consciousness (and he struggles with whether the output is more akin to psychosis or enlightenment).

For the psychosis side of the equation, see psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his sometime follower, Julia Kristeva. In my primitive understanding of Lacan, we pass through three “orders” in the formation of the psyche (or rather we build up three layers, like rings in a tree). The “real” order is the hidden kernel to which we have no analytical access. Like the noumenal world in Kant’s metaphysics, it is merely a logical assumption that we must make in order for later stages to make sense. We enter the “imaginary” order when we one day see ourselves in the mirror, so to speak (maybe around a year old), see an entity with clear boundaries, and come to imagine ourselves as separate individuals surrounded by external people and environments. Later, we enter the “symbolic” order with the formation of language skills. We begin to process the world through a symbolic overlay (e.g., the sound “tree” symbolically represents the concept “tree,” which isolates and defines a whole range of sensory inputs, the sound “me” represents…, etc.). We now define our personhood relative to that symbolic overlay. We have entered the symbolic order.

In trying to access the “real,” we can only “imagine” it as an undifferentiated flux, or conceptualize it via the symbolic order (as a logical presupposition, an object of psychoanalysis, etc.). Either way, our view is mediated through imaginary or symbolic orders – we have no direct, unmediated access.

Kristeva followed Lacan in theory and focused in practice on “borderline” patients, patients whom I think she found permanently stuck between imaginary and symbolic orders, with perhaps some tantalizing glimpses of the “real” (alas, I’ve lost my original notes on Kristeva and Lacan to Hurricane Katrina).

Back to Huxley’s inference about hallucinogenics, he might say that they strip away the layering of the symbolic order, the webs and webs we have thrown over the flux of original experience, dividing it up into regions we can name and render intelligible. If you strip away all that layering, all those illusions, and get back in some fashion to the lived experience of the “imaginary” order or even the “real,” is the result more akin to psychosis or enlightenment? I think Huxley tentatively concludes that it can give you isolated moments of personal enlightenment but that it is inconsistent with everyday life; it inhibits your ability to function successfully in the workaday, social world (which seems consonant with my personal LSD experiences). In other words, you can strip away the illusion and dip into those pre-symbolic levels of experience, but you have to come back up to sustain your everyday life, since the very enlightenment you feel on the personal level renders you psychotic relative to the social order within which you must live.

Then again, there’s always the Dalai Lama.

Prequel:  Psychosis and Enlightenment

Science and Philosophy

For some reason, science and philosophy have recently been pitted against each other in the blogosphere and public discourse. Maybe something Neil Tyson deGrasse said in Cosmos, but I didn’t have a chance to watch it. The antagonism between those disciplines, though, seems unwarranted.

Science was a subset of philosophy (“natural philosophy”) until the late 17th century. The subset was defined as a basically empirical quest for knowledge about the sensory world, or the objective world. Science has now grown into a separate discipline, and I think all acknowledge that physicists are far more precise than philosophers at elucidating knowledge of the objective world. But the objective world is only one abstraction from lived reality. When it comes to the subjective aspect of lived reality and related values – art, ethics, love, justice – philosophy has the edge. If you’re grappling with “how to live a good life” (a favorite question of the ancient Greek philosophers), a perusal of Epicurus or Gandhi might serve at least as well as Newton’s Principia or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And every physicist should be able to appreciate, at a minimum, Plato and Hume and Kant, who consider the logical presuppositions of empiricism as well as the conditions within which physics and the study of the objective world have a value for those of us living concrete human lives. “Why should we care about science?” is almost by definition the purview not of physics but of meta-physics, as it requires someone to step outside of science and view science as a whole against the larger screen of human values and what makes life worth living.

I think all will also acknowledge that science isn’t “the world” but is a secondary mechanism that observes and analyzes the world at an objective distance. There will always be a difference between the immediate experience of the world (e.g., the feeling of being in love) and the mediated analysis of the world (e.g., finding the chemical process that corresponds to the feeling of being in love). Science is de facto a mediated view of the world. It gains its power by limiting its scope to what can be gleaned at an objective distance from lived reality. Just as Plato’s myth of the cave and Boethius’s metaphor of the circle and Blake’s visionary poetry and Buddhist yoga practices and Shakespeare plays give us access points to lived reality that might fall outside the scope of science (i.e., vantage points that do not stand at the same objective distance as science).

So I am as fascinated as most with the yields of science, but I say let’s celebrate the scientist, artist, and philosopher all for advancing our range of fulfillment. And let’s keep some historical perspective. Pre-17th century periods, in which empiricism was not the dominant epistemology, didn’t value science quite as much because they considered the sensory world less important in the scheme of human values. Science and empiricism constitute the dominant epistemology of our age (a comparatively short 300 years so far). But who knows what priorities, what epistemologies, what new paradigms lay past the horizon line of the next age?

Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

Thanks to fellow blogger, Manja, for the following:

In 1932, renowned Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote a largely critical piece for Europäische Revue on the subject of UlyssesJames Joyce‘s groundbreaking, controversial, and famously challenging novel. From Jung’s essay:

“I read to page 135 with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way. The incredible versatility of Joyce’s style has a monotonous and hypnotic effect. Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter [...] Yes, I admit I feel have been made a fool of. The book would not meet me half way, nothing in it made the least attempt to be agreeable, and that always gives the reader an irritating sense of inferiority.”

In September of that year, Jung sent a copy of his article to Joyce along with the following fascinating letter.

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,

C. G. Jung


Gary to Manja:

Thanks, Manja, for that gem of cultural history. I often hear lavish praise or contemptuous disregard or sheer mystification from readers of Ulysses, but Jung captures the comprehensive experience best of all. The frustration, the admiration, the resentment toward Joyce, the moments of humorous tit-for-tat between reader and text – this is remarkably close to my own experience with Ulysses. And despite my large range of reactions, like Jung I feel the dominant one is that I have been fooled or defeated. For a more unambiguously satisfying experience with that modernist stream-of-consciousness style, I prefer Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which I think it is the most successful expression of that style/period and one of the four of five best novels ever written in English. It unfolds into a wonderfully rich modernist novel without the maturbatory antics or readerly frustrations of Joyce’s prose. It too is a difficult novel, but while reading To the Lighthouse, I never once doubted that the difficulty was worth it. With Ulysses, I’m still not sure it was worth it.


How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground

For those who self-identify as liberals, things were simpler in the 1960s and 70s. The left had an easy claim to the moral high ground then, embracing the Civil Rights movement against racist segregationists, fueling a feminist agenda against transparently sexist cultural formations, advocating freedom from conventional constraints, and deploying Gandhi’s principles of non-violence against the war-makers in Vietnam.

In today’s public discourse (at least in the U.S.), the moral high ground seems up for grabs. Liberals are more vulnerable, rightly or wrongly, to charges of prejudicial, restrictive, and divisive policies. Where did things go wrong, and is it just an image problem or something more substantive?

If I had to pinpoint one thing to study under this lens, I’d go with the rise of “identity politics” to a kind of critical mass in the 1980s. The intention may be admirable. We can say that all men and women are equal by law, but that elides the fact that social and human rights problems are often demographically defined. If we want to work toward a “more perfect union,” individual rights and grievances are an insufficient analytic. Demographic identity needs a voice, especially for underdog groups whose members share to a large extent material conditions and obstacles.

In practice, this quickly escalated into a kind of demographic determinism, where whites cannot and should not try to envision the black perspective (a magnification of the kind of critique the white William Styron took for writing Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective), where men have no business trying to envision the female perspective, the same with Latinos, etc. Authors and public intellectuals became treated as a priori “politically situated,” able to access the world and express themselves only via the demographic experience of their own race, gender, and ethnicity. At this point, the damage is done. Demographic identity, which morphed into the “identity politics” of 1980s liberal academic departments, works fine as a supplement to our shared human identity, but when it becomes a replacement for our shared human identity, you have become a divider, not a unifier.  You have ceded the moral high ground, and you can rest assured that many in the public domain stand ready to seize upon this and use it against the liberal agenda more broadly.

Liberals today could learn from 18th-century thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, who appealed equally to men and women with arguments based on a rational standard that knows no gender, or Olaudah Equiano, whose slave autobiography made it clear that racial identity was real and valuable but that our shared humanness (our ability to stand in each other’s shoes) would always be the key to progress in race relations. Or the 19th-century Frederick Douglass, who emphasized over and over that oppression dehumanized the oppressor as well as the oppressed, that we are all in this together with our humanity at stake. These great figures were all unifiers because our shared humanity was at the root of their visions. That’s why I pinpoint “identity politics” as the ghost in the liberal fall from the moral high ground, because – of all the factors we might look at – I believe this is the one that most rattles the link between a liberal vision and the concept of our shared humanness.

Is this, then, an image or substance problem? I think a bit of both. It is an image problem in one sense. When it comes to immigration or economic inequality or gay rights or women’s reproductive rights or access to health care or diplomacy versus belligerence abroad, etc., etc., the core liberal vision still stands today at a higher moral ground than the conservative one (especially if one uses Democratic and Republican parties as representatives of those two ideologies).

In another sense, the problem is substantive. Post-1960s liberals were not only better situated than their conservative counterparts (morally speaking) on those core economic and structural issues, but their vision held the moral high ground on two notable levels. Their short-term vision was all about breaking free of conventional chains on expression, lifestyle, and modes of social organization.  And they had a long-term vision much like Olaudah Equiano’s, where demographic identities could be celebrated but without clouding the shared humanness that undergirds the other layers of identity.

Current liberals (at least enough of them to make a dent) seem to have lost that vision. They place too much short-term emphasis on speech codes and on restricting expressions of anything deemed “offensive.” And their long-term vision suffers from divisive strategies that often sound more scolding than celebratory. “White privilege” and “male privilege” is a case in point. I certainly agree that there are racial and gender inequities that persist and need to be addressed, but these terms perpetuate the oppressor/oppressed dyad, and they send the message, intentionally or not, that “your hard work didn’t count, your efforts to treat people fairly didn’t count, it was all privilege and you should be a little ashamed of it.” This is at best a tactically and morally awkward extension of Elizabeth Warren’s more solid town hall point about how no one builds a business alone – tactically awkward because likely to alienate more potential allies than it gains; morally awkward because Warren’s point rests upon the unifying premise that we are all in this together, whereas the argument based on demographic “privilege” at least seems to rest upon a premise of conflicting interests and binary leverage. (Beware of anything that sets the “men vs. women” trap. As a great American said, “Those who are against women’s rights would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men.”) The “privilege” argument in its current form is not in the long run a unifying vision. It falls short of Wollstonecraft and Equiano and Douglass. It cedes the moral high ground held by them and held, I believe, by 60s/70s liberals as well.

If the left (or a sizable subset thereof) has ceded the moral high ground, this doesn’t mean they’ve yielded that ground to conservatives/Republicans. Issue for issue, the latter are even further from the moral high ground. Rather, when liberals relinquished the moral high ground, they left a vacuum.  We need a morally rejuvenated liberal party, or even better, a new grass roots, non-partisan movement, one that flushes out a little of the us-versus-them acrimony and upcycles some of the celebratory 1960s vision but without moving backwards from here. I’m not sure how to do that, but I’m open to suggestion.

M Gandhi and Ayn Rand

“How does one live a good life?” was the core question for Plato and other classical Greek philosophers. Here are two mutually exclusive answers from the 20th century:

Gandhi: Through service to others and simplicity of lifestyle.

Ayn Rand: Through rational self-interest and the advancement of capitalism.

Pick your path to happiness and to our best possible future. I know which one I lean toward.

Is “Where are you from” offensive

Time to pick on my post-1980s liberal allies again about the neo-liberal reflex to take offense too easily and limit the chaotic scope of free speech that we post-1960s liberals so love. I don’t mean “free speech” in the first amendment sense, which is not at issue here, but rather open speech in the public sphere.

It started with reading a Huffington Post opinion piece by Melody Moezzi, an Iranian-American who was offended when people asked where she was from. For that matter, I’m a New Orleanean of European descent, and when I open my mouth in New York or California (not to mention abroad), people often ask me the same question. Maybe it’s partly true that I take no offense because I’m not in an ethnic group that has historically suffered discrimination, but the fact is that I love interacting with people from different places, learning about their roots and sharing my own. Of the friends I still stay in touch with in a dozen or so countries, many of those friendships (as well as some domestic friendships) began with that very question. If I were afraid to ask (or were offended when asked), as some contemporary liberals would have me be, my emotional life would be less rich, my cultural awareness less deep, and my circle of friends more narrowly circumscribed to those who are like me and thus less prone to offense.

I understand this is not a proper opening line based on someone’s ethnic look alone, and know it could get old to one who is repeatedly asked, but it can be part of a first conversation (with a modicum of common sense), especially if there are other indicators that you or your interlocutor are traveling. I say let’s bust open all the boundaries and all share our ethnic stories freely. Indeed, let’s be grateful for any small talk that might wedge open a little cultural interchange.

At the very least, my neo-liberal friends might grant that there’s a “good” way and a “bad” way to broach the subject. I’ve met my share of rednecks and intolerants who might ask as a way of marginalizing the “other.” But many, like me, are simply fascinated with the idea of sharing histories and backgrounds. It’s easy to be offended. But it’s also easy to say, “I was born here but my family is from x,” or “My family has been here for 10 generations,” or whatever is the case. Consider that if everyone you met shied away from the question, how sparse our cross-cultural connections would become. If to avoid offense, we check our speech and stifle our curiosity about one another and shrink away from sharing, it is true that less offense will be given, but I say the cost is too high. Better to let a few ignorant jerks make fools of themselves than to tamp down the human contact that comes with openness.

So if someone asks where you are from, give the questioner the benefit of the doubt. Your open frankness will most likely humble the ill-natured interlocutor and might make of the good-natured interlocutor a lifelong friend.