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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Aidos and Einfühlen: Reworking the Self through Creating New Habits of the Mind

It's a little bit eerie and a whole lot tragic that on the day wine women and philosophy gathered to give shame a good airing (April 21, 2016) the man who declared a war on shame - the mononymous, mega-talented and much loved musical genius, Prince - was found dead in his Minnesota home. Shocked and saddened, we set about spring-cleaning the closet just the same. Cleaning is therapeutic. What else to do but clean when the Little Red Corvette has left the station and the whole world is weeping Purple Rain? What better starting point than the closet when the rampant speculation accompanying the death of a very public figure brings you face-to-face with a skeleton or two of your own?

Turns out we're not the only ones dragging those skeletons out of the closet. Starting somewhere around the 1960s, shame - as Ruth Leys (From Guilt to Shame, 2007) argues - became the new guilt. Oh sure, shame had always been there: in Greek mythology as Aidos, goddess of shame, humility and modesty - lounging around with the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis, when not otherwise engaged in restraining mortal men from doing wrong and reminding the wealthy that their good fortune was more a question of luck than merit; in early Greek parlance - again, aidos - as meaning everything from reverence to dignity to compassion to coyness to sobriety. As Anne Carson (who, in addition to being a poet, is also a classicist) explains, shame back then was a "vast word" - covering all manner of emotions and feelings and qualities and affects. But skip ahead to the early 20th century and it is guilt, not shame, that is garnering all the attention: transformed into the emotion du jour by Freud because it is, perhaps, a little easier to pin down than shame; suddenly responsible for a whole slew of complexes rooted deep in the murky waters of the unconscious. As Leys points out, it was "survivor guilt" which was carried out of the concentration camps by those who managed to survive the horrors of the holocaust. Whereas just 20 years later, with Freud falling out of favour and the 'affective turn' in full swing, it was shame that was fast becoming the darling of the intelligentsia...It was shame that was on its way to being the people's "sickness of the soul" par excellence.

And in a way, you can understand that beeline to the shame train. Guilt, after all, is generally seen as being about something you've done. Getting to the bottom of it might well be a Freudian dream come true, but it isn't all that satisfying if you're trying to go beyond explanation, justification, representation, etc. Shame, on the other hand, is about the self tout court: not the bad thing you did, but the inherently bad person you are. It's endless! It's all-encompassing! It's suffocating! Moreover, and as American shame guru Brené Brown (b. 1965) hastens to tell us, it thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement - all those things that imply a relationship to others and yet, at the same time, serve to separate you off from those others. And that's where the other commonly understood distinction between guilt and shame comes in: whereas guilt is intensely personal, revolving around an act that nobody else necessarily even knows about, shame makes us see ourselves through the scrutinizing eyes of others. It matters not whether those others are real or imagined. It makes no difference whether we share the social and cultural values that we are seen to have violated, or have merely internalized them. Shame puts our whole being on trial, and we stand naked and alone before the jury (or, if we are Jacques Derrida, before our cat). Small wonder that public shaming is the issue that sets our teeth a-chattering in this age of accelerated information sharing and wildfire social media. Small wonder that empathy is being hailed as the go-to answer in a society awash with the fear of, or fall-out from, shame.

But empathy is an elusive creature: an 'openness' much more easily said than done. As a word, it trips off the tongue whenever kindness or compassion or forgiveness or acceptance are being encouraged: by victims of shaming like Monica Lewinsky (pictured left) - being brave on TED and speaking out about the human cost of being publicly humiliated; by spokespersons for the shamed like Brené Brown - B.R.A.V.I.N.G it out on SuperSoul Sunday and promoting empathy as the one thing shame can't survive. And though the jury is still out on whether shame is even in need of an antidote - cultural theorist Elspeth Probyn (b. 1958), for one, celebrates the positive in shame, seeing its sudden surfacing (along with its very physical manifestation, the blush) as a useful indicator of what we truly value and care about in our lives - it remains that the antidote most often proffered, empathy, is somewhat lacking when it comes to its unpacking. 

Enter Edith Stein (1891-1942) - pictured left - the Prussian-born philosopher turned Carmelite nun who began her unorthodox journey from Judaism through Atheism and Feminism to Catholicism and eventual Canonization as the brilliant graduate student and research assistant of the man generally recognized as the 'father' of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). While editing Husserl's writings, Stein had noticed a similar kind of oversight when it came to Husserl's working of empathy, or einfühlen. For though he sung its praises, even hinging much of his phenomenological methodology  on our ability to "suspend" our prejudices and presumptions and einfühlen - quite literally, feel into - the other so as to perceive and hence know that other with absolute certainty, he never really got down to the nitty-gritty of what the act of empathizing actually entailed. But then, Husserl hadn't gone off to the front at the beginning of the first world war to work as a nurse - something that Stein had done. Husserl, beavering away on his notion of "pure consciousness" had - like many a male philosopher before him - been far too busy establishing a place for himself in the Western philosophical canon to concern himself with practical matters of the life and death variety. Stein, however, experienced the workings of empathy first-hand while fighting to save the lives of strangers, and accompanying others with whom she shared no common language or culture to that most intimate of places, death. And when she returned to her studies midway through the war, connecting these new insights to Husserl's original oversight resulted in her doctoral dissertation, the aptly named On the Problem of Empathy  (1916). 

What Stein proposed with regard to our unavoidable intersubjectivity - the fact that each of us is a being-in-the-world amidst other beings-in-the-world - is that just as each one of us is a perceiving subject, feeling our way into whatever foreign other we want to see for what it or she or he truly is, so too is each one of us that other's intended object, making each of us not just an "I" (a perceiving subject) or a "you" (a perceived object) but, more importantly, an empathically aware "we." What is crucial here is that in becoming a Steinian "we," I don't lose any of my "I"-ness. On the contrary, being a "we" helps me to define with greater clarity just what I value and just who I really am, and this, based in part on what and who I'm not - ie. you! But to do this work, I really have to look at you and learn from you and see you for who and what you are. Moreover, empathy lies in the recognition that you are doing exactly the same thing with regard to me. Empathy also lies in the realization that without a "you" to look at and to be looked at by, there is no "I." In Steinian terms, "I" am constituted by your "you" and "you" are constituted by my  "I." The fact that we, as human beings, are mutually constitutive and necessarily in-relation means that regardless of our differences - and there will be many of them, so bring them on! - we rely on the other as that other in order just to be. That, at least, is the bare bones of Stein's definition of empathy...A definition which certainly troubles the kind of feel-good slogans - "Empathy is...seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another" - that do-good organizations such as A Place for Mom build their brand on. For if I am seeing, listening, and feeling with your body parts, how am I going to see, listen to, or feel into you? It seems like an appropriation of the highest order, this taking over of you in the name of establishing a feeling of oneness, in the name of helping you through your shame, among other things. It seems like the absolute opposite of empathy, in fact - this inability to see you, listen to you or feel you because I've set up camp within you. 

Of course, to fully understand Stein's re-configuring of the self through a figuring into the equation of the other, it helped to familiarize ourselves with some basic Husserlian phenomenology: its privileging of the here and now, for example; its interest in an embodied experiencing subject; its situating of "pure consciousness" not in a place, such as the mind, but rather in an intentional act, as in the perceiving subject's stretching out towards its intended object; its call to potential practitioners to put to one side all they had learned and claimed to know (a most unprecedented philosophical move) in order "to return," in Husserl's words, "to the things themselves!" This attempt to see anew, as if for the first time, and in so doing grasp the unadulterated essence of the thing was, for early 20th Century phenomenology, its innovative masterstroke. But what originally made it innovative was later cause for concern: seeing anew and searching for eternal essences striking some as being two actions that were seriously at odds; a case, for these critics, of a refreshingly progressive method being put towards a somewhat retrogressive philosophical end. 

But this didn't stop us from experimenting with Husserl's technique of Epoché, or "bracketing," in order to see through new eyes if not the ultimate truth of the objects we were intending, at least something novel about them. And nor did it put us off Edith Stein's own particular brand of phenomenology - an approach which not only avoids for the large part this Husserlian pitfall, but is actually quite ahead of its time in its attention to the other and its nuanced understanding of the politics of difference. Best of all, we had a new working method with which to take on the world - the addition of Stein's empathic awareness to Arendt's two-in-one thinking and Weil's void-friendly attentiveness not only swelling our philosophical go-to arsenal, but enabling us to focus in, see anew, and draw out the finer points in Anne Carson's magnificent poem about adolescent shame, Spring Break. Book-ending these revelations with Martha Nussbaum's (b. 1947) assertion that shame, in early childhood, is a “primitive” response to weakness and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's (1815-1902) assertion that shame, in later life, is a “humiliated loneliness” brought on by the unrealistic expectation that we are meant to live with others and our sense of failure when we find ourselves alone, made us feel like we had truly come full circle on the shame train. Or at least, looked - really looked - at The Phenomenon Formerly Known As Guilt (TPFKAG). 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Stuck in Flaunta: Undoing the Self and Paying Attention

Canadian poet Anne Carson (b. 1950, pictured above) was in town recently, receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. Strutting onto the stage in a fabulous pair of red cowgirl boots, she eschewed the usual litany of thanks and opted, instead, to lead us all in a participatory exercise in snappy story-telling. It was fun and she was funny: what more could a lit-fest audience turned pop-up Greek Chorus ask for? The answer: an interview with the inimitable Eleanor Wachtel. What followed was pure magic, and theatrical to boot: Wachtel wrangling her way through the prickly and unyielding scrublands of  Carson Country; the rest of us unflinching witnesses to this unnerving showdown between unflappable doggedness and insouciant erudition. Once, just once, Wachtel lost it. A persistent cell-phone ringing out through the auditorium broke her concentration - and this, just as she was finally getting Carson on side, reeling her in. Like tumbleweed, Carson was gone again: a free spirit refusing to be fenced in; a bit of mischief on the make. It was fascinating and just a tad unsettling, watching these two literary heavy-weights tussle their way through an interview which will, on May 8th, be broadcast on CBC Radio's Writers and Co. Fascinating, because who would have guessed that the radio interview format would make for such rich and compelling viewing. Unsettling, because Anne Carson just is.

But then, we already knew this - those of us who had entered Carson's world during the third session of this current series in order to gain a better understanding of another unsettling character: the philosopher and activist Simone Weil. And aren't unsettling folk just like that? You think you've done them, ticked them off, when suddenly, you're back to square one. That's how it felt, at any rate, when we dipped back into Weilian workings of the self with a view to moving shame-wards, and found ourselves up to the eyeballs in alligators. That "swampland of the soul" - Brene Brown speak for shame - would have to wait. This other quagmire into which we had unwittingly waded - the actual technicalities involved in "undoing the creature in us" so as to successfully "decreate" a la Weil - required our immediate attention. And so, spurred on by Carson's insight into how to go about actually paying attention - "Attention is a choice of where you put your mind...And looking at the object of your attention to the extent that you forget you're doing the looking" - we embarked on a series of exercises designed to both instruct us on the ins and outs of destroying the "I," and sharpen our skills in the attentiveness department.

Of course, there was a lot of preliminary discussion as to whether destroying the "I" was a desirable thing in the first place. In a sense, that Weilian notion of carving out a void in the space where the self normally resides goes counter to the rah-rah-be-your-biggest-and-best-self kind of rhetoric on offer in Self-Esteem for Dummies etc. In a culture where Self reigns Supreme, doing away with it is unnerving at best, terrifying at worst - even if this negation is, as Weil contends, a necessary move if one is to fully open oneself to Truth and Knowledge and Whatever Else Truly Matters. For the self gets in the way. Like a shadow, it blocks out the light. Like unwanted baggage, it weighs you down. , Like the elephant in the room, it takes up all the space. Clear the shadow, the baggage, the elephant, and you're starting to get somewhere. A strange way to go about getting to the bottom of self-esteem, perhaps. But it seemed to offer something in the way of getting more out of life, and so we bit.

Simone Weil (pictured above) suffered from terrible migraines. She tried many ways of clearing them out of her head, but nothing seemed to work. One thing she knew for sure was that they got in the way of her being able to turn her full attention to what mattered. In April 1938 she found herself attending the Easter Mass at the Abbeye St-Pierre in Solesmes. She felt the Gregorian chanting of the monks enter her body, go straight to the space in her head filled with migraine. As the chanting poured in, her migraine did a peculiar thing: it emptied out. Soon, the space formerly known as migraine was awash with Gregorian Chant. It was a space rendered ready for paying attention: for "a patient holding in the mind," as Weil referred to the act of paying attention, which in turn would make thought itself "available, empty, penetrable by the object." This is a radical take on the role of thought in the life of the mind: not the light bulb switching on as it encounters its object, but rather, the necessary conditions for the object to come to light. In Weil's conception, thought must be suspended if the object of one's attention is to find its way in, gain a proper foothold. If thought is busy thinking, the object just passes it by. If thoughtfulness hasn't twinned itself up with attentiveness, the best we can hope for when it comes to thinking is a worrying - Weil would go so far as to say dangerous - mishmash of "partial attitudes."

That, at least, is the theory. We obviously needed to put ourselves in Weil's shoes to grasp what it felt like in practice. And so we experimented with filling our heads with the self-same Gregorian chants that had so impacted Weil, and making of the resulting void a luminous object-ready nesting ground. Yah, right. Weil, as I suggested earlier, was unsettling: not your average, run-of-the-mill, kind of gal. But we gave it a go, and then turned our attention to other aural stimuli: a metronome's steady tick-tocking, which brought the Weilian notion of time as "unvarying perpetuity" into the equation; a wind-up music box with its twirling ballerina and its ever-decelerating ditty, which prompted us to probe yet further how time, if invariably monotonous for Weil, could helpfully be categorized as either "time surpassed" - as in here comes the void, which is good monotonous - or as "time sterilized" - as in me just going round and round like "a squirrel turning it its cage" and never getting anywhere near the void, much less admitting to myself that I am going round and round (which for Weil is the worst sin of all, this kind of self-delusion) and which is, not surprisingly, bad monotonous.

This seemed as good a queue for a song as we were likely to get, so we broke out Anne Carson's Duet of What is a Question from her Weil-inspired opera in three parts, Decreation (2005), and gave it our valiant best. Improvising the vocal arrangements - Carson had only supplied the libretto - provided us with the perfect opportunity to pay attention to each other, and hone our deep listening skills. As for getting us closer to the void, we were still a little in the dark. Enter American poet Fanny Howe (b.1940, pictured below) and her beautifully observed prose poem, Doubt. If Baruch Spinoza is the physicists' philosopher, Simone Weil, it would seem, is the poets' philosopher. Though it is easy to understand why Weil speaks to poets like Carson and Howe, the writing that comes of their interest in her ideas and her personal narrative is as tantalizing and challenging as Weil herself. Sometimes. though, what poetry gives us that philosophy cannot is a line of such stark and heart-breaking beauty that knowing what the void, for example, actually is, or what it is to make one or find it or get there, no longer seems to matter. For a very brief moment, we just feel decreated - like the creature in us has unraveled, like we have completely come undone. No wonder, as Howe herself suggests, Weil would have loved to be a poet. And thank goodness, because she wasn't, there are poets like Anne Carson and Fanny Howe to step into the...void.    

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Question of Self-Esteem: Remembering Judy Stevens...Rethinking Selves

Early in February we lost Judy Stevens - a valued and much loved member of wine women and philosophy. Judy is widely remembered for having co-founded Share the Warmth: an organization committed to providing clothing and food for Montreal's homeless, as well as much needed services for at-risk youth. Less known, perhaps, was Judy's sideline as a philosopher queen at wwp's regular Thursday night salons and philosophy club. Judy managed to combine a deeply spiritual sensibility with a beguiling sense of humour, and this made her contributions to whatever topic we were exploring at once profoundly insightful, at once an unexpected pop of delight. She moved between the deadly serious and the gently irreverent with astounding ease, drawing on the one to shed light on the other so as to bring a fresh perspective to the matter at hand. As a thinker, she was probing and generous and inquisitive. As a participant, she was engaged and engaging and just occasionally bemused. Her tongue-in-cheek commentary on Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology will never be forgotten. Likewise, her triggering of the great wine women and philosophy missing boots scandal, and her measured response to the chaotic hilarity that ensued. Among the many things I learned from Judy, what comes to mind at this moment are words of advice she gave me when I was starting up a new venture and feeling somewhat shy about asking people for support. "People like to help out," she said - drawing no doubt on her experience with Share the Warmth. She told me to think about it in terms of giving people the opportunity to do something they naturally wanted to do; not as something that would put people out. I think that Judy always thought the best of people, and her way of seeing the act of giving was entirely consistent with her view of humankind.

Paying tribute to Judy at last week's salon evening, this generosity of spirit was something that members were quick to point out. So too was the sense that, though physically absent, Judy still felt present - a warm and luminous presence that continued to light up her usual spot on the sofa. The poet Mary Oliver speaks of the end of life as offering one small but significant consolation: "Surely it is then that a person's character shines or glooms." Without a doubt, Judy's character shone and still goes on shining. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that this second session of our current series served as an introduction to the thinking of one Simone Weil (1909-1943) - a French philosopher, teacher and activist who Albert Camus once called, "The only great spirit of our times." Perhaps Weil's ability to see "every separation as a link" - a concept she referred to as metaxu - and to revel in the contradictions that this positing of absence as presence and presence as absence elicits, gave us an entry point into understanding the feelings we were having about Judy. Certainly, Simone Weil's deep investment in the suffering of others could be said to resonate with Judy's own desire to alleviate the malheur being experienced by the less advantaged of our city. And certainly, Simone Weil's parting words to her good friend, Gustave Thibon - that he remember her not with sorrow, but as one recalls a favourite book from childhood - could be something that Judy might have said. But there, I suspect, the parallels end. For whereas Judy's giving of herself in the name of a friend, a stranger, a family member, or a cause came across as life-affirming to all concerned, and that includes herself, the same cannot be said of Simone Weil's particular (some might say peculiar) brand of selflessness.

When Susan Sontag said of Simone Weil that she was "one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit," it is likely that Sontag's use of the word 'troubling' was chosen with Weil's proclivity for extreme self-denial in mind. From the time she was a very young child, Weil deprived her body of the most basic of needs. Giving her own rations away to WWI soldiers as a six year old, eschewing every bourgeois comfort she had been born into to demonstrate ongoing solidarity with the most disenfranchised members of society as an adolescent and young adult, Weil saw "embodied thinking" not so much as an acknowledgement of the body-mind connection, as a moral obligation to throw one's body out into the world. Once out there, that body became an experiential field: to be starved and scarred and overworked and underpaid not in the name of sacrifice - no trembling sacrificial lamb, Simone - but rather, in the the pursuit of truly knowing. This was a knowledge unlike that of most Western philosophers who, isolated from the people and left to reflect in peace, cast down their learned pronouncements from a lofty pedestal on high. On the contrary, Weil's was a knowledge that came of rubbing flesh with the real and turning affliction into concrete action into an embodied form of enlightenment. In her later years (not that late...she only lived to 34) a series of mystical experiences and with these, conversion to a strict if defiantly anti-church form of Christianity, led her to see these willful acts of deprivation as an "undoing of the self." While the Self was there, as Weil saw it, hanging around and blocking the light and taking up valuable room that might otherwise be filled with Knowledge, you were only a poor old sack of a thinking thing. But open that Self to the processes of decreation...Embrace the void and now we're talking! Or perhaps, not talking...Can an undone, decreated Self still talk? But hey, no matter. We're feeling that all-encompassing Knowledge pouring into us and filling us to brimming and wow, does it ever feel good!

And yes, there were some inconsistencies there: some screeching paradoxes and knobbly contradictions. But Simone Weil reveled in all of that: she loved a question that coughed up incompatibilities and an answer that propelled you back to the drawing board. What mattered - the cornerstone of all her thinking, in fact - was that you were paying attention: immersing yourself in the world and taking it all in and allowing it to flow through you and leaving no small detail unseen. Weil saw the state of paying attention as the only true state of Grace. To give the world, to give anybody, your undivided attention was, for her, "the rarest and purest form of generosity." And perhaps that is why she couldn't be a body herself: a body with all its pesky demands and earthly needs that only served to divert her own and everybody else's attention away from the task at hand, which was to pay attention. Perhaps that is why, with all her attention so keenly focused on the horrors of WWII and the question of how to rebuild a new kind of Europe when - if - the atrocities ever ended, she was unable to devote any time and energy to being a tubercular body in need of sustenance in a sanitarium in Ashford, Kent in 1943. That she opted to hold on to a principle rather than save her Self probably makes little sense to most of us today. But it must have seemed to her that the world itself had lost all its principles, and that the pact she had made to herself while working for the Free French in London - that she would eat no more than the meager ration allotted her compatriots in war-torn France - was just not up for negotiation. There are so many ways to be a body, to be a Self. For this most uncompromising of witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit, a way that most of us find troubling was probably a straightforward case of amor fati. After all, this was the philosopher who saw the self-directed annihilation of our  "I" as our only "free act"; the philosopher whose bare bones conception of the Self was one of pure and simple mutuality with a much bigger world.

As for all those other ways of being a Self, and in particular a Self that esteems itself, we proceeded to take a quick tour of self-esteem's journey into popular psychology: from its acquisition of a bump on the head in phrenologist Johann Gaspar Spurzheim's (1776-1832) early mapping of an individual's psychological attributes; through William James' (1842-1910) unpacking of the hierarchical "I-self"/"me-self" relationship and with it, the understanding that remains today of self-esteem as "the collection of an individual's attitudes toward oneself"; to German developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (yes, him again!) with his attaching of the boy-child's attainment of self-esteem to his mastery of the tools and technologies associated with the adult world around him, and his success as a measurement of his competence (a case of "industry" over "inferiority") when it comes to demonstrating the acquisition of these particular skill-sets.

Naturally, we called upon a couple of feminists to set Erikson right. Psychologist Carol Gilligan (b. 1936) took him to task not only for his initial erasing of girls from this schema, but for his subsequent framing of a girl's development of Self as a product of her intimate relations with others and, in direct opposition to her male counterpart, as successful if and only if it privileged connection over separation. Just how self-esteem is generated within such a conception, not to mention how whatever is generated is rated in a world that posits autonomy and individuation as the markers of True Selfdom, are questions to which we, if not Erikson, paid considerable attention. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), for her part, made us see the benefits of being left out in the cold when it comes to any such developmental schema and their real life manifestations. The choice is ours: we can buy into what de Beauvoir calls the "ready-made" world of "the serious" - that industrious adult milieu into which Erikson's self-esteem-bent boys are busily muscling their way; or we can be free - making ourselves a "lack of being" and "casting ourselves out into the world" in order to live not as Slaves, but as fully realized Selves. If we're opting for the latter, then its girls and women - not wanted on the voyage, anyway - who have the least to lose and the most to gain in taking that precarious if ultimately life-affirming route.

Still mulling over the practical implications of inhabiting a cast-out Beauvoirian 'lack of being' Self, we turned finally to Hannah Arendt's (1906-1975) contention that the only Authentic Self is a Public Self - the one that each of us presents to the world and to which the world, in turn, responds. So much for nurturing your inner child and wishing that people, if only they knew the real you, would totally get what you're all about. Given that what people see and hear is what you really are, says Arendt, you had better be sure that what is going on in the inside is entirely consistent with what is going on on the outside. That, for Arendt, is what it really means to be 'true to oneself.' That, for Arendt, is the bedrock of every encounter you will have in the world, and the basis of your self-identity in that world. If, when you speak and act, you are misunderstood, you have to keep hammering away until what you think and what others take to be your thought are the same; until how you believe you should act and how you are actually acting out there in the world are the self-same thing. It's your responsibility as an Authentic Self, this ongoing process of putting it out there and getting something back by way of a response and then putting it out there again...and again...and again. Selves change as a result of this dynamic process. So too do relationships. But the inner you and the outer you are indistinguishable: they are always an in sync Self.

Which is just about where we were when time ran out and we agreed to treat those hard working in sync Selves of ours to a much needed cup of tea. We'd been so busy expanding our sense of what it is to be a Self in the world that we had never actually got to the point of working out what esteeming one of these revamped selves might look like, much less how it might respond to being assessed as high or low. Sure, we shared a cackle over the stand-out title on the topic down at the local book store - Self-Esteem for Dummies. But beyond that, we'd barely scratched the surface...A glossing over of which Hannah Arendt would no doubt approve! We'll be picking up on a few of those self-esteem strands left dangling next time we meet. And then - fully armed - we'll wade out into the murky waters of shame.                

Friday, February 19, 2016

What, Where, When, How, Why is a Psyche?

There are ideas and entities that are so broad, so grandiose, that they slip into the realm of the arcane. Psyche, Soul, Mind, Self… Where on earth do we start when venturing into these terrains? How do we begin to even answer a question of the “What is an X?” variety when the X in question is so exhaustive? The group of women who came together last Thursday to kick off our new series, “…And if we went to the philosopher instead?” seemed anything but daunted by the ambitious task we had set ourselves for the evening. On the contrary, we tackled the A to Z of Psyche in much the same way that London cabbies make use of The Knowledge. If we couldn’t find our way into Freud’s Ego, Id and Superego through the traditional psychoanalytical route, we took a U-Turn back to Plato’s tripartite understanding of the Soul with its magisterial voice of Reason, its unruly workaday Appetite, and its law-enforcing Spirit. When we still found our Selves caught up in a gridlock (and indeed, 2000+ years might separate the ‘father’ of Western philosophy from the ‘father’ of psychotherapy, but both saw the female Self as essentially defective when it came to the make-up of her soul or psyche, and as deviating from the male ‘norm’ when it came to how it functioned) we tried alternative routes. 

Veering off the beaten track into the affective arrondisement of the poetic, for example, gave us Mary Oliver’s poem, Bone. Here, we glimpsed a basically unknowable soul or psyche – one that not only resists organization, assessment, and hierarchies à la Freud and Plato, but that is (like us) all the richer for it. Another creative detour landed the more artistic among us with the equivalent of a Monopoly Board ‘Get out of Jail’ card. Exchanging words for images, we drew our way in and out of psychically pertinent concepts both concrete and abstract. Even Thinking itself was subjected to our artist’s eye as we attempted to manoeuvre around yet another one of those impossibly vague-because-of-its-vastness questions: “What are we doing when we are thinking?” This question, which came to us courtesy of Hannah Arendt’s theorizing around the dialogic two-in-one in her The Life of the Mind (1978) and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s inspired discussion of Arendt in her Mind and the Body Politic (1989), provided much grist for the mill: our graphic representations of the thoughtful two-in-one (“me” and “myself” engaged in a passionate conversation in which “thinking and aliveness become one”) offering up GPS-like suggestions for circumnavigating the mental road block that had arisen the moment we tried to pin down just what thinking felt like and was; our positing of thinking as a potential cornerstone of any philosophy-based therapeutic or self-help program signalling a departure from the tree-lined streets of the city and our entry into the bigger picture of the forest.

For we had sallied forth and rallied our collective energies to embark on a project: that of testing out philosophy’s ability to give psychology a run for her money when it comes to alleviating our sorrows and feeling good about our Selves. True, those early Hellenistic philosophers had felt pretty confident about their youthful discipline's ability to furnish folks with "medicine for the soul" (Martha Nussbaum). But by the mid-19th century, philosophy was seen by many to have more or less run its course in this respect. Too much contemplation of how many angels might be squeezed onto a pinhead, not enough practical advice as to how to better oneself and improve one's prospects. Enter Scottish politician turned newspaper editor turned motivational speaker turned author, Samuel Smiles (1812-1904). Convinced that political reform had also run its course in terms of addressing the concerns of the masses, Smiles was an early advocate of the change-your-attitude-change-your-circumstances school of thought. A self-made man himself, Smiles would go on to self-publish the first self-help manual in 1859. Appropriately called, Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct, the book was a runaway best-seller and Smiles became an overnight sensation: our first self-help guru.

His timing, in true guru fashion, is fortuitous. We've come a long way since those ancient Pre-Socratics stared up at the big unknown skies and wondered what secrets the sun, the moon, and the stars might hold as regards the nature of human existence. Centuries of philosophical problem-solving have led us closer to home in our questioning, to the point that the experiencing human body is now the focus and our gaze is set firmly on what we cannot even see. Deeply concealed within that body is a psyche: a psyche so complex that only an expert trained in psycho-dynamics is equipped to guide us into its depths and help us fish out its secrets. The rich and well-connected have access to these kingfishers - to the early psychoanalysts who are spawned by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and who, in turn, develop their own methods for excavating the catacombs of the unconscious. But for the rest of the population there is Samuel Smiles: buy the book, and fix yourself. And call it what you will - fixing yourself, improving yourself, or (75 years and 50 million copies later) How to win friends and influence people (Dale Carnegie, 1936) - the fact is that self-help is soon big business. By the end of the 20th Century, it comprises books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, and it's a $2 billion a year industry in the US alone. By 2008, the scope of self-help has expanded (it now includes infomercials, holistic institutes and stress management programs) and the US figure has risen to $11 billion. 

Small wonder that critics like Micki McGee (Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life, 2007) see the self-help industry as "a new sort of enslavement" and the self that results of this literary cotton field as "endlessly belaboured." And small wonder that alarm bells were starting to ring for us as we took on McGee's contention that the 21st Century preoccupation with "psychologizing the personal" and re-inventing the self has acted as a "tool of social control" - serving to "sooth" political unrest. Was it any coincidence, we asked ourselves, that psychology began its steady rise to prominence around the same time that the first wave of Western feminists were taking to the streets and committing acts of sabotage in the name of suffrage? Was it any coincidence, we asked ourselves, that women fast became psychology's primary target - the gender most in need of fixing - if not the gender authoring the actual fix? Was it any coincidence, we asked ourselves, that in an era where women were finally breaking out of the private sphere and entering the public sphere on some semblance of equal footing, a sphere even more private than the home - that of the inner Self - was being eagerly proffered to them in every self-help book and psycho-therapeutic form imaginable? 

In engaging with these questions, we brought Freud's "dark continent" that is the female Self into dialogue with abolitionist and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton's (1815-1902) insistence that  "every woman exercise governance over her own inviolable self" (Vivian Gornick, The Solitude of Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 2005). We also grazed the surface of Existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir's (1908-1986) argument that women must cease to be Other and become the central actor in their own lives. This, in order to begin our dismantling of some of developmental psychology's more troubling assertions about the adolescent girl's journey towards forging a "coherent self": the "empty and lonely" waiting game that is part and parcel of her acquisition of an identity, for instance; the "rescue" that comes in the form of a man "by whose name she will be known, by whose status she will be defined" (Eric Erikson, 1968...That's right, 1968!). Next time we meet, we will be turning our philosophical gaze towards the matter of self-esteem. When I say that we've only just begun with our dismantling, I mean it! 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

2016 salon series: "...And if we went to the philosopher instead?"

Greetings, wine women and philosophy members and friends. And Happy New Year. Here's hoping that 2016 is a fine year for all of us. As for where we're headed in our upcoming salon series:

It is widely taken for granted that if we are burdened by shame, wracked with guilt, lacking in confidence, caught up in an addiction, feeling depressed, agonizing over our life choices, wondering (queue for song) What's it all about, Alfie?, we'll find the answer to it all in psychology. As a field, it's huge. Just compare the burgeoning Self-Help section in any bookstore to the paltry offerings in Philosophy, say. Just look at the inroads made by psychology into areas ranging from sport to business management, from education to politics. If we're talking about making things work better or feel better or look better or do better, psychology has the market cornered. Whether it's on-line, on-the-couch, or on-the-hoof, there's a host of psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and life coaches out there ready to be of service. So how did the relatively new discipline of psichiologia - the study (logia) of the spirit, mind or soul (psukhe) - become the panacea for all 20th and 21st Century ills? What was it seen to offer people (and particularly women) that religion, for example, or philosophy, no longer could? - or perhaps never had? And what is gained and what is lost when a discipline organizes itself around scientific research and the establishment of know-how, as psychology has, rather than a simple love (philo) of wisdom (sophia)?

These questions we will address in our first session together. Because this is a philosophy series, however, we are less interested in comparing psychology to philosophy than in delving into the contributions made by philosophers - in particular, female philosophers - to those aspects of life that have become the bread and butter of today's psychology industry: issues of trust, feelings of shame, and the matter of self-esteem. Drawing on philosophers such as Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Sara Ruddick, Gillian Rose, and Annette C. Baier, the plan d'action is to imagine together what a "self-help" (or help of some other kind) manual might read like if put into their hands, or what "therapy" might look like if arranged around their theorizing. Throughout the life of wine women and philosophy 's Thursday evening salon series (she's 8 years old this year!) we have argued that thinking philosophically can change your outlook and enhance your experience of the world. It could be said that in this particular series, we are putting our belief in the life-saving qualities of philosophy to the test, and struggling alongside you to come up with some practical manifestations of this vision. 

When Simone Weil was a secondary student in Paris in the 1920s, the standard teaching method in her high school was to focus in on a particular philosopher each year, and to twin him (it was inevitably a "him") with either a novelist or a poet. In Weil's first year at the school,  everything she learned linked back to Plato or Balzac. Riffing on this educational approach, we will link a particular work by a poet (inevitably a "her") to each of our five sessions: this, in the hope of creating a structure of feeling around the aspect of life we are exploring, and providing an additional entry point into the ideas of the philosopher(s) around whom the session is organized.

We kick off on January 28th, with a session called Psyche.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Lesson 5: The Modern World (1900-1950)

A plane flies into a mountain and everyone perishes. A loved one is taken by cancer way before her time. An earthquake rips through a country causing enormous loss of life. All events, these, that occurred over the course of our inquiry into the history of Western Philosophy. All events, these, that have happened before, and will happen again. In the meantime, we try to make sense of them: doing our thinking through what Marshall McLuhan terms "the rear view mirror"; turning to ideas that were circulating about life and death and everything in-between during the first half of the 20th Century in order to come to terms with these 21st Century personal tragedies and large-scale calamities alike. For as McLuhan insists, only the most prescient of visionaries can think the present through a philosophical lens which has actually arrived in that present, much less leaped ahead of it. And though we were feeling pretty primed with 2000 years of Western Philosophy under our belts and just 50 short Modern World years to go, we weren't about to presume that we counted among that number. Which meant that we hit the year 1900 running: pouncing upon Nietzsche's (1844-1900) pronouncement - "God is Dead!" - as one would a baton in a relay race; sprinting out into that brave new world of uncertainty like punch-drunk gazelles...And he doing the pronouncing barely in his grave.

But now that we were on the home stretch, the harsh reality of it all was beginning to sink in. Cicero circa 500 AD had argued that philosophy teaches us how to die. 1000 or so years later, de Montaigne - after a near-death experience had cured him of his paralyzing fear of the grim reaper - was suggesting the opposite: that philosophy teaches us how to live. And quite apart from whether our natural inclination was to see life and death as opposites or the self-same thing, and regardless of which philosophical camp we chose to align ourselves with - the life camp, the death camp, or the camp that sees philosophy as there to teach us something entirely different - the fact remained that we were entering the philosophical equivalent of a no-man's land. Gone were the usual touchstones: Truth, Faith, Reason, Science. Instead, we looked around and saw one great big gaping void. God might well be dead but so, it seemed, was everything else: either rotting away on the slag heap or hurtling hell-bent towards an inevitable and absolute end. All in all it was a tad depressing. Though nothing that a touch of philosophical tweaking couldn't put right.

Take, for instance, that plane - an event which, like the other two, is seemingly beyond our control. But somebody was at the controls of that plane. And if Nietzsche is to be believed, it sure wasn't God. So what to make of this horrific act of human volition? What to make (to incorporate the second event) of our ongoing insistence that people die “before their time” when no time, much less a defined time, is graspable when it comes to those we love? And speaking generally of that which is within our grasp (and specifically of the numbers to perish in that earthquake) how is it that one death can rock our world, whereas the deaths of tens of thousands will often barely register? These propositions or “pictures of facts,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) would have it, we considered; and the tweakers at our disposal were a mixed bag of early 20th century German phenomenologists, French existentialists, and British logicians.

From the phenomenologist camp, we drew upon Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) idea that each of us is but a temporal being – a “being-toward-death,” as he terms it – and that to live “authentically” is to live each day facing up to the certainty of our own impending death. Against this idea, we pitted the contention of fellow phenomenologists Edith Stein (1891-1942) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995): that it is in facing up to the deaths of others, and not our own, that the route to authenticity is to be found.

With all this talk of authenticity flying around the room, it came as no surprise to find an Existentialist or two weighing in on the matter. In addition to Nietzsche wandering around out there in a “Godless Universe” there was, for example, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936): the brave and outspoken critic of Franco’s violent methods and accompanying motto – “Long Live Death!”  Arguing that suffering is not only a “vital experience” but an essential aspect of learning what it means to exist, Unamuno made love the cornerstone of his existentialism: to love is, at the end of the day, all that matters; to learn how to love we must necessarily identify our own suffering with the broader suffering of the world.

And then there were those wise old owls of the Anglo-Saxon tradition: mathematician turned analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) shouting “Down with Work!” and “Up with Happiness!” from the barricades while professing life to be nothing more than the sum total of “muddle and accident”; American pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952) asking the question we in this new post-Enlightenment world could no longer avoid: What do we do when, in spite of taking control in every way we can, disaster still strikes?

We fittingly brought the evening to an end – and by extension, this series – by choosing an appropriate death for our philosopher self. Were we the kind of thinker who would die heroically, as Vitalist philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) had: taking sick after standing in line with other French Jews as they registered with the Vichy government, even though his fame as a philosopher had been enough for the Nazis to grant him an exemption? Or were our philosophical leanings more likely to incline us, like 101 year-old Hermeneutics philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), towards a somewhat gentler death: slipping into unconsciousness just hours after celebrating a clean bill of health from our doctor with a glass of wine? But whatever our chosen philosopher death – and we had a great number of them to choose from thanks to Simon Critchley’s surprisingly entertaining book on the subject, The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008) – we parted this latest salon adventure a good deal more awakened to the story of Western Philosophy and the mostly his-stories that inform it. Thank you to all who participated. It has been quite the road-trip of a ride!