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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Shall we keep it as a promise? (For friends)

I've been contemplating that line from the Flaming Lips song I posted previously: 'say it isn't so.' For me, this is a request for an affirmation, for a promise. As the song suggests, the willingness we typically see in people to act on our potential for friendliness, generosity, kindness, acceptance, graciousness, communion around Christmas seems to have a habit of passing with the season, allowing what goodness we've enacted, what beauty we've felt, and what truthfulness we've embodied to fade out to static, like an old radio receiver slowly losing signal. 

'Say it isn't so?

As much as I would like to give you my word, to say 'yes' to this request, I have to be honest and concede that I can't. I have to say, with much sadness and I hope your understanding, that I'm just not sure enough, not brave enough, not strong enough to face the future to come with a resounding 'yes!'. Not yet. I will, however, give you my word that I will do what I can so that when a future comes, I may--despite the continuing presence of uncertainty--say with an honesty cradled by fidelity, dedication, trust, and responsibility, 'yes!'

'Say it isn't so?' 

That's an appeal for a promise, isn't it? I'm reminded of another song 'Sentimental X's' by Broken Social Scene. One part of the song goes: 'Sentimental all of you/Sentimenal/All of you/I love you.' I was reminded of the song when reading Facebook updates on Christmas. I was musing on how people who--though reflecting glimpses of their lives in mirror fragments from different nodes of the social network nevertheless share the same persona of 'friend'--were unabashedly sentimental in their posts, wishing others well, sharing friendliness, good will, and kindness, and so forth. Different personalities leading different lives and aspiring towards different goals each affirming, individually and communally, that care, concern, hope, contentment, ease, respect, love, and joy can be enacted, embodied, and lived--not later, but right now. I'd like to think of this as a microcosm of an actual lifeworld, albeit one amidst what could possibly be infinite constellations of lifeworlds stretching, oscillating, and bending through indeterminate (and maybe indeterminable?) space. 

Though indeterminable in depths and dimensions, the potentials and possibilities of this clear, open space are actualised by energies and forces of varying magnitudes, speeds, and frequencies--these, to speak figuratively, spark and ignite the creative choreographies and melodies of the creating cosmos, through which chaos and order elegantly dance, play, commune, and rest in partnership and harmony, with delicate balance and equipoise. To my awareness, knowledge, and imagination, the cosmos is characterised by undulating forces, patterns, and relations which, based on what I've felt, I'd hypothesise as the conditions of possibility for life, for consciousness, for vitality. To stretch this 'cosmic' metaphor a little further, the relay points, transmissions, and feedback circuitries of the social network--what I'd also liken to the synapses of bodies-minds communicating communally, cooperatively with one another--giving out and receiving signals from one technico-neuro-chemical junction to another, effecting movement, navigation, and reconnections which together form a jewelled net that glitters with living affirmations of goodness, beauty, and truthfulness. This porous, open net collects, protects, and preserves the ever-changing collection of symbols, words, snapshots, freeze-frames, and afterimages that irradiate from our memories, imprinting on our bodies what we have become, may become, and hopefully, continue to become. 

OK, the point of this post (sorry, I have habit of taking a while to get to the point): Friends.

Writing the previous post got me thinking about what it means to celebrate Christmas with a few of my closest and much loved friends. We had all decided, as early as a year ago I think, that we'd spend this Christmas together, something we hadn't done before. These are the oldest friends I've known since moving to Australia in 2002, friends who, I believe, have somehow been able to respect, appreciate and even love not only our commonality, our shared passions, our shared hates (we do grumble about the world occasionally :-) but also our irreducible differences, the strange, curious little quirks, habits, likes, and dislikes of the other that tickle and puzzle us. I would call the relationship we've nurtured and share a kind of 'spiritual friendship', or if the idea of 'the spiritual' doesn't resonate with you, we could call it 'admirable friendship.' For me, I take the word 'spiritual' to involve the enacting and sharing of such admirable qualities as loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. These virtues are nurtured, cultivated, enlivened by thoughts-speech-acts like ethical behaviour and reflection, non-grasping attentiveness, and creative inquiry-expression-performance-vocation. These virtuous qualities--nourished and cradled by fidelity, trust, dedication, and responsibility--allows us to embody goodness, to honour truthfulness, and to resonate harmoniously with beauty.

My understanding of spiritual or admirable friendship is informed by the Buddhist notion of kalyana-mittata. It is said that the Buddha impressed upon his disciples the importance of admirable friendship, for it is the 'the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to self-awakening.' The advice was given to laypeople too: to nurture companionship with and to emulate those who share goodness, beauty, and truthfulness; those whom we can trust and turn to for a sympathetic ear, for wise counsel, for patience, for support, for understanding--however, I think it is also necessary to accompany these with sustained effort at caring for, exploring, honouring and understanding ourselves without expecting justifications nor attempting to conceal what we have done, have become, or hope to become. (NOTE: This is my paraphrasing of the advice given in Buddhist discourses on admirable friendship; see link above.) 

In the context of monasticism, the support of admirable friendship provides the conditions conducive for their spiritual path. To put it in very generalised terms, one of the goals of the Buddhist spiritual path involves the cultivation of a full, deep, felt, an embodied acceptance (in my experience, this somehow also allows for a greater appreciation) of the reality of impermanence: things change. And to my understanding, the inevitable fact of change is like the not too distant horizon of our lives, a future to come that we can only await. For however much we move towards the horizon--which orientates us, guides us, give us faith, hope, and reason to continue, to explore, to seek--the horizon, being a horizon, will invariably recede. This very nature of the horizon represents the futility of resisting change, and the impossibility of controlling the incoming of a future; the horizon reminds us that there will always be more to come--whatever may be. This absolute future asks that we await and embrace change with faith and hope, an appeal for affirmation. 

It is in admirable companionship, in mutual care, concern, support, encouragement, and forgiveness that faith and hope are shared and thus collectively affirmed. To affirm faith and hope is then, I suppose, to say 'yes' to the absolute future, the impossible horizon, a future to come, the incoming of the utterly other: the honest reality of change. 

Maybe this is why people get all sentimental about moments of communion. I don't know about you but I'm usually quite self-conscious about displaying sentimental behaviour. This is partly because I have a reserved personality, and partly because of the oversaturation of sentimentality in the mediasphere, where it is peddled in TV ads, soapies, movies, lifestyle magazines, self-help books, for instance, like some cheap snake oil, carelessly exploited, sensationalised, glamorised, and venerated as a panacea for the burdens and uncertainties of life. But despite these reasons, I cannot deny that I'm very sentimental  about many things. I certainly have deep sentimental feelings towards you and for all the moments of communion we've shared. So, my reservations about overt sentimentality notwithstanding, perhaps sentimentality is the pulsating of the heart (to be sentimental is to be heartfelt, don't you think?) from which goodness, beauty, and truthfulness reverberate and resonate.

Sentimentality, then, following my ruminations here, is what allows us to feel hope, contentment, and joy; it is the ability to embody beauty, goodness, and truthfulness--RIGHT NOW, however long it lasts, before it phases into and metamorphises the next: a future to come, the reality of change. 

Change. In fighting against it and crying over it, I've felt disappointment, loss, doubt, fear, sadness, loneliness, emptiness. Have you felt the same? Yet, with change I have also felt respect, compassion, understanding, support, patience, trust, love, friendship. I'm glad to say that many of the moments where I felt the fullness of life have been in the presence of your companionship, in shared moments of goodness, beauty, and truthfulness. 

Thanks to a dear friend whose wonder, curiosity, and amazement for the astronomic sciences have inspired in me a curiosity too about the marvels of what is unknown, and possibly unknowable, about the depths and dimensions and the beginnings and ends of space and time. By accepting and being aware of the unknowingness of the cosmos which, although I can't master or describe with absolute certainty, I have intuited, felt, and known a humbling presence of awe and peace difficult to elaborate in words. I can at best describe it as a sense sublime, the grace of immense (dare I say infinite?) compassion that sometime irrupts unexpectedly through the experiences of contentment, ease, joy, and also the experiences of dissatisfaction, uncertainty, and sadness stringing together birth and death, this fleeting moment we call THIS VERY LIFE. From a galactic or 'cosmic' (I like the expansiveness and mystery of this term) optic, our shared moments are really but the faintest and briefest of sparks ignited by the pulsating reverberations of space and time, where expansions and contractions, collisions and explosions herald the births, deaths, and rebirths of suns and stars; of galaxies and constellations; of molecules and elements; of systems and ecologies; of worlds and realities; of life and consciousness; of love and awakening. 

As we cherish the moments that have passed, celebrate what is present now, and await a future to come: we each have decisions to make, journeys to travel, responsibilities to meet, relationships to nurture, questions to ask, answers to question--not to mention dragons, monsters, ghosts, and demons to chase, and of course, dreams to fulfil, stars to discover, love to give, worlds to create, promises to keep. But to fulfil dreams, to discover stars, to give love, to create worlds, to keep promises--what else can we do but await a future to come? What else can we do but embrace change? Without the horizon of change which, although ever-receding, nevertheless orientates us, guides us, and gives us reasons for faith and hope--how are we to honour the truthfulness of the goodness we've felt or embody the beauty of the truthfulness we've shared? 

Given that there's no way of fully knowing or anticipating the absolute future, maybe we could--to honour the goodness, beauty, and truthfulness we've felt in life--accept what we do not or cannot know and do what we can to further develop those admirable qualities we have felt and learnt, so that our decisions and actions may allow the unexpected incoming of the utterly other. But given how expectations can NOT give us certainty in the full sense of the word (if you observe it clearly, expectations are really just projections, don't you think?), UNCERTAINTY is always already here, today, not tomorrow. It is this unknowingness of tomorrow here today that demands of us to repeatedly choose and act on a decision. For me, given the absence of certainty that is always shadowing the present, I think a prudent course of action to take would be to affirm this moment, today, and then the next, then the next, until a future comes. 

But this takes considerable effort, and I must say that I've not always been mindful of my decision. From time to time, I forget about my decision to honour those admirable qualities that have brought me joy, contentment, and ease, and being absentminded I sometimes carelessly act in ways contrary to those admirable qualities I've felt, learnt and shared with you. Sometimes (and I ask for your graciousness and understanding) I lose sight of the horizon, forget the call of fidelity, trust, dedication, and responsibility. Nevertheless, each time I am reminded of the call to honour my decision--a call of, from, and beyond the absoute future: the impossible horizon--I start again and exert what effort I have now. This, I ACCEPT, is all I can do to INCITE a future to come. But my efforts notwithstanding, I still have to AWAIT the absolute future, to ALLOW it to come. The decision to affirm goodness, beauty and truthfulness as we phase through one moment to the next: isn't this movement that of faith? The decision to steer our intentions towards the gravitational pull of what is admirable, wholesome, or virtuous: isn't this navigation that of hope? Accept. Incite. Await. Allow. Starting again and again: here, now, faith and hope, for tomorrow. 

I'm sorry I can't yet promise that as we each face what is to come, I will not change or that we will always find reconnections as the movement and navigation of life take us further into, perhaps closer to, the horizon. The truth is I cannot anticipate change nor can I yet promise that you and I would not one day become as the song puts it, 'a friend of a friend you used to call.' But I'm more than a little hopeful and have more than a little faith, which, btw is not a fervent, clinging belief that all my wishes and expectations will come to be as how I've desired them to be, because this only incites fear. Rather, faith, as I choose to affirm it, is a confidence or trust in the goodness, beauty, and truthfulness felt, learnt, and shared by us--between you and I. I therefore choose to affirm goodness, beauty, and truthfulness with the faith and hope that the reality of these truths will, if they have brought me such joy, contentment, love, and ease, usher what is to come and with grace fulfil a promise for tomorrow. I promise I will do what I can to embrace change, to await a future to come, where we may, hopefully, reconnect again (and again) in cosmic outbursts of dazzling rapture and joy, igniting together sparks of goodness, beauty, and truthfulness. 

Given the 'cosmic', luminous but ephemeral moments we've shared and created--dearly cherished and fondly remembered, of course--will you kindly accept my gesture of good faith: Shall we keep it as a promise? You and I, friends? 


If you are wondering if this refers to you--if this thought has flashed across your mind--I'm humbled and grateful: YES, this is about you, of you, for you.

Friday, December 24, 2010

What does Christmas mean? Why do I say 'yes' to Jesus?

(LONG POST. A big THANK YOU upfront if you are so generous with your time as to persist and consider what I have to say. My deepest gratitude.)

It’s Christmas Eve. All kinds of thoughts tend to arise in the intermediate state between sleeping and awakening. I awoke musing on the opening scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and thought it a nice homage to the story of Christmas. Here’s the scene:

I do not know what to make of the miraculous-birth-compassion-for-the-poorly-feeding-hundreds-healing-the-sick-raising-the-dead-turning-water-into-wine-walking-on-water, betrayed-disowned-flogged-mocked-crucified-stabbed, mourned-resurrected-ascending-into-the-sky-to-sit-with-God story. But having been exposed to and conditioned by this story (I attended Sunday school occasionally as a kid, though I suspect I really just wanted to hang out with friends) ‘Jesus’ remains a curious question for me. Why am I curious about Jesus? I can’t quite articulate why; maybe it’s simply because I don’t have the answer: I don’t know. Yet even more curious is that in light of recent events—events which, I wonder, if they would’ve happened if not for the very propitious circumstances I’m in which allows me to explore Buddhism, a PhD, cultural research, while earning a decent livelihood all at the same time—I feel like a could say ‘yes’ to Jesus, even though I do not know why.

So I thought I’d pose the question a little differently and ask, ‘What is it about Jesus that I say 'yes' to?’ What came to mind was the reading I’ve done on the work of Jacques Derrida, (in)famous for what has been called deconstruction. Now, I must confess straight up that I do not understand him almost all the time. But there are shards and fragments of his writing that speak to me, especially when they are read alongside the interpretations of John D. Caputo. One of these fragments is his understanding of ‘messianicity’, which he distinguishes from ‘messianism’. Here’s how Caputo puts it:

[Derrida] distinguishes… between the determinate content of particular messianic promises and the messianic form of the promise itself, which goes to the heart of a promise, which is the form of any promise to come. Once the messianic is given determinate content, it is restricted within a determinable and determining horizon, but the very idea of the messianic, of messianicity, is to shatter horizons, to let the promise of something tout autre shock the horizon of the same and the foreseeable. Messianicity is not a horizon but the disruption or opening up of the horizon.
The phrase 'tout autre', as I understand it (I don’t know the French language, btw), means ‘wholly other’ or ‘utterly other’. I’ve also encountered it in Derrida’s essay ‘Faith and Knowledge’, where he writes: ‘…where every other is utterly other <où tout autre est tout autre>.’ Elsewhere, Derrida writes:

It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. [I like how upon quoting this, Caputo interjects, saying: ‘Not tomorrow but maybe later on, or perhaps never’; see The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion, p. 267.]

Another shard of Derrida’s writing that speaks to me is what he says about ‘an irreducible experience of the future.’ Caputo describes this as ‘a future to come of l’avenirl’à venir, as opposed to le futur.' Well, I suppose I ought to say quite frankly here that one of the reasons I do not understand Derrida almost all the time, other than my poor knowledge of the philosophical works he engages with, is because I’m unable to pick up on the nuances of the French language he plays with. In any case, this is what Derrida writes about ‘the future to come’:

The affirmation of the future to come… That is nothing other than the affirmation itself, the “yes,” insofar as it is the condition of all promises or of all hope, of all awaiting, or all performativity, of all opening toward the future, whatever it may be, for science or for religion ('Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.' Trans. Eric Penowitz Diacritics, 25 (1995), p. 45)

Following on from this point, Caputo, writing in relation to the critical concerns of the historian and archivist, suggests:

In the end, the historian and archivist must always turn to the future, to a future unknowable not merely because we cannot predict it with certainty but because it is altogether outside the order of knowledge, belonging as it does to a sphere of affirmation, of faith and hope (Prayers and Tears, p. 269).

I like this. I’m extrapolating from Caputo to take his suggestion to apply to not just scholarly concerns but to my everyday burdens: of worry, fear, loss, disappointment, anger, regret, pride, craving, dissatisfaction, and so forth, which, I'm pretty sure, everyone experiences too—what might be summed up with the Buddhist idea of dukkha, I guess.

Anyway, back to Derrida:

The condition on which the future remains to come is not only that it not be known, but that it not be knowable as such. Its determination should no longer come under the order of knowledge or of a horizon of pre-knowledge but rather a coming or an event which one allows or incites to come (without seeing anything come) in an experience which is heterogeneous to all taking note, as to any horizon of waiting as such… I call this the messianic, and I distinguish it radically from all messianism ('Archive Fever', p. 47).

So maybe that’s what it is, the messianicity of Jesus (‘Jesus’ the messianic) not the messianism of Jesus (‘Jesus’ the messiah) that makes it feel right--what enlivens me with faith and hope--to affirm ‘Jesus’ with a ‘yes!’ Or at the very least, this is what allows me to affirm Christmas as much as I honour the Yule traditions of yore. But if these are the reasons I’ve come to say ‘yes’ to ‘Jesus’, these very same reasons demand that I suspend the very story of Jesus: the messianic, the incoming of the utterly other, the future that always remains to come--that which does not come under the order of knowledge, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow, demands that I suspend all answers to the questions of what Christmas means to me and why I say ‘yes’ to Jesus; it demands that I keep these questions open—perhaps as kind of working hypothesis.

‘What does Christmas mean? Why do I say ‘yes’ to Jesus?’


I suppose come Christmas, people tend to wonder, ‘What is my favourite Christmas song?’ It changes from year to year for some people, I suppose. Here’s one that I appreciate a lot; can't find the song on Youtube (because sharing music, as the big entertainment corporations will tell you, is bad and will get you in Santa's list of naughty children). So here are the lyrics:

A Change at Christmas (Say it isn't so)
Flaming Lips

I know everything changes

Yeah, it's strange how time marches on

Maybe there'll be some time in the future
Oh, tell me I'm not wrong

Oh, if I could stop time
It would be a frozen moment just around Christmas
When all of mankind reveals its truest potential
And there is sympathy for the suffering
Yes, there is sympathy for those who are suffering

And the world embraces peace and love and mercy
Instead of power and fear
And as sure as I'm standing here
I swear it really does appear that a change comes over us
Yes, some kind of change comes over us

And it's glimpsed for one shining moment
And this change feels like a change that's real
But then it passes along with the season
And then we just go back to the way we were
Yes, we just go back to the way we were

Say it isn't so
Tell me I'm not just a dreamer
I'm talking with a friend and he knows how it ends
He says it's easier, that's just the way we are
That's human nature and that's just the way we are
Oh, say it isn't so! 

‘Say it isn’t so.’ I'd read that as a question rather than a moral injunction, a question the answer to which I can only await--for it to come, perhaps never arrived, but only ever to come.

‘Change.’ That’s something I hear a lot in Buddhist talk. ‘Anicca, anicca, anicca,’ my first meditation teacher S.N. Goenka is fond of saying (incidentally, if you practice Buddhist meditation too, wouldn't you say that the cultivation of equanimous observation, non-grasping attentiveness, is not unlike awaiting?). Well, this has prompted further thoughts about what it means to me to spend Christmas tomorrow simply, intimately, with a few close and much loved friends. But I’ll save that for another post. I’ve been overly self-indulgent as it is. My deepest gratitude if you have put up with me thus far. Thanks for reading. 

Happy Christmas.

(Dedicated to my dearest partner, Daphanie, for making this impossible question of the future to come so much more bearable, for enlivening it with faith and hope, and I must add, patience and forgiveness.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What is spirituality (part 1)?

I've used the word 'spirituality' several times in my previous posts without defining what it is. You would expect that having spent close to three years researching the topic, I would be able to give you an answer. However, the truth is, I can't. What I've discovered very early on in my research is that the idea of spirituality has multiple meanings which are always shifting. In contemporary times, it has been criticised as a kind of Humpty Dumpty word:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

The book Selling Spirituality picks up on this observation to investigate how spirituality in recent times has been configured around certain dominant meanings that promote and reproduce certain neoliberal capitalist ideals. However, the authors do not take the view that the idea of 'spirituality' is inherently flawed. Surveying the history of how the term has developed in response to shifting social conditions and ideological struggles, their aim is not to pin down an 'original' meaning of the word (why pin it down when it is a dynamic, living and evolving concept?) but to open up space for alternative understandings and applications of the term. This is how they are attempting to contest what they see as the colonisation of spirituality by certain neoliberal ideologies.

In a similar manner, the aim of my research is not to pin down a definitive meaning of spirituality, but to explore certain strategic or working definitions of the term that are ethically and socially sensitive. What I've been trying to do, in other words, is to develop a working hypothesis for this idea of spirituality. I will share some of these ideas over time. 

In any event, I suspect most of us would have a kind of vague feeling about what spirituality involves. Some of us may be comfortable with the term, some of us may not. Maybe we could think about the issue together. To begin, here's a quote from the book A Sociology of Spirituality which illustrates just how hazy but powerful the term can be:

[Spirituality] relates to what is proper to metaphysics, its cold study, but also to the needs of the self for an inner warmth, something mysteriously supplied; it realises emotions whose testimonies are persuasive but also profoundly inexact; it inheres in the social in the subjective realms of appropriation, but then its external manifestations provide an objective facet in the frames that cradle its coming and manifest its infusion to each and all; yet it is available to some but then decidedly unavailable to others, either due to denial or incapacity to discern; its expression can be remarkably and mysteriously variable; and finally, it lies within the realm of technique, in manipulations that place the self by its own efforts into the laps of the gods, but for others it is a transcendent phenomenon, one whose ultimate sources lies outside self-endeavour, in a God who comes and goes with Divine discretion. Spirituality is of the ultimate, but also the supernatural. Both seem melded together, but then for others they are separate, belonging to different compartments of life and beyond. Universal and highly specific, outside time, yet within it and confined to the realms of the social or the self, chasing spirituality around ... is like trying to squeeze mercury with a nutcracker (p.2).

WTF, right? :-)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

No fear = ???

Thanks to a friend for sharing this piece from Wired, Rare Brain Disorder Prevents All Fear
A middle-aged woman known as SM blithely reaches for poisonous snakes, giggles in haunted houses and once, upon escaping the clutches of a knife-wielding man, didn’t run but calmly walked away. A rare kind of brain damage precludes her from experiencing fear of any sort, finds a study published online December 16 in Current Biology

Reading the article, I could see that these sorts of studies raise all sorts of questions about methodology and perhaps the most hoary issue of all: the question of nature vs. nurture. There is no doubt that much of our behaviour is influenced by the workings of the brain, the biological imprint of our bodies. Yet, taking narrowly such a view risks biological determinism. I once heard a neuroscientist on TV saying that the brain is--despite its various 'hardwirings' and so forth--a sponge for cultural information. Moreover, the way that cultural information is absorbed (dependent of course on the specific cultural environment one is in) influences the electro-chemical flows, circuitry, connections and reactions of the brain.

Culture itself is a thorny issue. But let's just take it very broadly as the ecology of institutionalised/disciplinary knowledge-practices like the law, medicine, science, philosophy, art, religion--and of course quite importantly for our times, the news-entertainment storytelling (and even world-creating) industry--to everyday vernacular knowledge-practices like media fandom, trivial pursuit, folklore, shopping, social media, drinks, drugs, sex, rock and roll, and so forth. These different sets of knowledge-practices co-exist alongside one another, affecting and also affected by one another, sometimes resonating well together other times with dissonance. The modulation of these expressions of culture condition, narrativise how we understand and experience such feelings as fear, happiness, anger, sadness, enjoyment, and so forth. My point here is that while I find this piece of research fascinating, I'm mindful that a narrowly biological explanation for how fear functions in the central nervous system doesn't quite give us the full picture of how feelings, thoughts, actions--in a word, consciousness--are as much influenced by innate biological abilities as they are by wider social and cultural forces. For me, I'm beginning to think that the longstanding disputes about nature vs. nurture somehow only trap us in a critical impasse.... but this is just a hunch; can't say I've thought it through carefully.

In any case, bracketing off these questions about the approach and uses of the study, the following observations, though not yet conclusive, is interesting.

Feinstein and his colleagues sifted through SM’s past, looking for instances when she should have been scared. SM said she never felt fear, even when threatened with a knife or a gun. The researchers gave SM an electronic diary that she carried for three months to record her emotional state. Fear didn’t make an appearance in the list of emotions. On a battery of questionnaires, SM wrote that she wasn’t afraid of public speaking, death, her heart beating too fast or being judged negatively in a social setting.
Next, the researchers did their best to scare SM. They showed her clips from The Blair Witch Project,The Shining and Silence of the Lambs: She was interested, but not afraid. The Waverly Hills Sanatorium Haunted House in Kentucky didn’t faze her. Instead of screaming, she laughed and poked one of the monsters in the head. The team took her to an exotic pet store with poisonous snakes and spiders. SM claimed to dislike the animals, but when she saw them she was overcome with curiosity, repeatedly asking to touch the snakes.

As I see it, the fact that she is more likely to be curious about and engage with those things that the average person would be fearful of or clam up or turn away from, suggests that the absence of fear allows for more openness and willingness to see the light side of things (i.e. she attempts to be interested in fright flicks, and laughs at the humour of make-believe monsters) and also to understand and even enter into a relationship with things she dislikes (i.e. wanting to touch the snake is quite an intimate gesture, I think). 

So, if this suggests anything, for me it suggests that the absence of fear = openness, rather than 'courage' or 'bravery'. And if openness involves an inquisitiveness, an air of curiosity, a willingness to be surprised--to enter into a relationship with something wholly other--then, perhaps an attitude of openness is one that treats life not as a pre-given fact or as something tumbling inevitably towards some predestined future. Because if as suggested above, the absence of fear overcomes even that of death--which implies that when the clouds of fear obfuscating the question of life/death dissipate, a clear space remains for openness, curiosity, relationality, lightness, ease, and immersion in life--then, speculations about a beginning and end, or what comes before and after, become less urgent (not to say that there's no merit in hypothesising about them) in comparison with what potentials there are in this moment, which will surely phase into, metamorphosize, and actualise the next. To me this also implies that the question of 'who/what I am and who/what I will be?' becomes less urgent than the question of 'how shall I be so that I may become whoever/whatever I may, hopefully, continue to become?' Life without fear, in other words, becomes something like a question, a hypothesis. If so, then:

No fear = ???

A hypothesis is not an answer; it is a question formulated (but always open to revision) in order to explore certain possibilities, for discovery, to be surprised. A hypothesis is only as good as one is willing to investigate, revise, refine, and ultimately, let go of the question in favour of a different one, if reasons for pursuing it are no longer sustainable. But I suppose to even begin, we need to understand the fear which all too often holds us back from even daring to ask. And since most of us would not have the kind of brain disorder the woman above has (but we may very well suffer from other kinds of disorders, whether we are concerned enough to attend to them or not!), I'll just have to begin with, 'What am I fearful of?', before understanding, 'What is fear?'

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Part southern revivalist church meeting, part presidential rally, part Zumba

The title of this post comes from an article in the local papers about Oprah's visit to Sydney. You are probably wondering why I'm talking about Oprah again. I don't usually think of her. But she has been in the local media a lot in recent days and this has prompted some thoughts on issues about spirituality that I've been addressing in my work. So no, I don't spend my days fretting over Oprah. I'm just using her as an example to illustrate some ideas.

Anyway, the title is a great description of what I witnessed on TV a few nights ago when I chanced upon The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was the 'My Favourite Things' episode. I know I've written about her previously and what I'm about to write here may seem to undermine my attempt in that post to argue for the possibility that some people may find spiritual inspiration in Oprah. I still stand by my arguments in that post.

My point there wasn't to suggest that the 'spirituality' associated with Oprah should be uncritically accepted or that it we should refrain from interrogating it. It doesn't deny that there could be ideological, social, ethical or political problems associated with those cultural forms. What I was trying to get at is that, sometimes, our discomfort with people who enjoy those cultural forms may not necessarily be filtered through a careful, rational analysis of the situation. Observing my own feelings I've come to realise that my judgements, even when they are carefully considered, sometimes belie a degree of snobbishness.

Anyway, coming back to the Oprah Winfrey Show. When I flipped to it, Oprah was asking the audience if they meditate. There was some murmurs amongst the audience and a few of them raised their hands. Oprah looked on somewhat disappointingly and said that meditation can be a good way to help individuals clear up their inner problems so as to open up more space for giving. I thought that was a rather decent advice until the sound of Christmas bells came on and she revealed that 'giving' was precisely what she was going to do. The audience went absolutely nuts! They started to jump up and down in joy, break into to tears, hyperventilate, squeal, scream, and so forth. Turns out that Oprah was going to give them freebies. This is the list of stuff she gave to the audience.

I was rather disturbed by what I saw. By first mentioning meditation and how it can encourage one to be more giving, she taps into the powerful meanings associated with contemplative spiritual practices which, according to various religious traditions, are meant to encourage one to become less self-centred, more generous and kind, and so forth. However, that possibility was immediately turned into one of self-gain and individual, personal profit. In this instance, if Oprah advocated a 'spirituality' it is what some critics have called an individualist or consumerist spirituality. The book I suggested in the previous post on Oprah, Selling Spirituality, talks about the (emphasis added):

...  wholesale commodification of religion, that is the selling-off of religious buildings, ideas and claims to authenticity in service of individual/corporate profit and the promotion of a particular worldview and mode of life, namely corporate capitalism (p. 15).

In the case of Oprah above, I observe a similar strategy of appealing to claims of authenticity associated with some religious ideas/practices but using that to promote a certain worldview which equates personal gain, the endless acquisition of material comforts, with happiness. Individualist/consumerist spirituality develops out of what has been described as 'prosperity religion':

Prosperity religion, of course, is bound up with what would appear to be an ever-more significant feature of modern times: the growth of consumer culture and the associated 'ethicality'--if that is the right term--of people intent on satisfying their consumeristically driven desires. It could well be the case that prosperity religion is [characteristically] about the sacralisation of utilitarian individualism (Religion in Modern Times: An Interpretive Anthology, p. 174)

I'm not suggesting that consumption is inherently bad. I am a modern consumer in every way imaginable! But when you think about the idea of 'consuming', whether it be 'spirituality' or whatever, it is not just a matter of 'using something'. When we consume, we are often also 'consumed by' what we consume. For example, when we consume our favourite music or movie or book, we can sometimes be consumed by feelings of awe, of beauty, of the sublime or whatever.

In terms of 'spirituality': suppose our spirituality involves consumption, suppose we find spirituality in the stuff we consume. As suggested above, I think it is important to consider the ethicality of the spirituality we consume. Does it encourage greater feelings of craving, of greed, of self-centredness, or does it encourage feelings of openness, of clarity, of self-awareness? So even though I consume, I try to always keep in mind the question, 'What am I being consumed by?'

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ethically fraught

OK, as I mentioned in the previous post, I will attempt to flesh out my thoughts on the Wikileaks saga. I suppose a good place to start would be the idea of 'truth'. The word 'truth' has been the buzzword associated with this saga. The arguments about 'truth' are generally linked to the issue of free speech and censorship. Commentaries about Julian Assange's imprisonment has largely revolved around how his detainment is an attack on the right to free speech, an attempt to curtail or censor truth. These are valid arguments and I fully agree that these things have to be defended. However, I've also been trying to think about the 'flipside', as it were, of these debates. I understand that we have to defend the right to free speech and fight censorship. There is a kind of moral injunction around these issues. But what does this moral injunction--expressed in terms of various moral codes, sometimes taking the form of explicit law like the First Amendment or whatever--seek to protect or uphold? One could say it is 'truth', but I wonder if what is at stake is more accurately 'honesty' or 'integrity'? Do we not feel strongly about these codes, do we not feel morally obligated to defend these moral codes, because they say something about the value of such VIRTUES as honesty and integrity? Are these virtues not the 'flipside' of the moral injunction to defend the right to free speech, to oppose censorship?

By drawing attention to the virtues at stake, I'm choosing to look at the issue in terms of ethics rather than moral codes. As I see it, 'the right to free speech' is a kind of moral code. Moral codes function to ensure certain standards of morality, and to this extent they certainly deserve to be defended. However, this still leaves open the question of how individuals subject themselves to these moral codes, so that they live in line with and embody them. In the context of the Wikileaks saga, to attempt to live honestly and with integrity involves the attempt to subject ourselves to the moral code of 'right to free speech'; it is not merely to discover truth or to defend the space for truth but to give ourselves over to truth, to allow truth to have an effect on us, to allow truth to transform us. For this to happen, I think, there has to be some form of effort exerted by the self, on the self, but always in relation to others. In working on the self vis-a-vis others, we enter the sphere of ethics.

I'm drawing a distinction between moral codes and ethics, a distinction I derive from French philosopher Michel Foucault. To quote Clare O'Farrell who runs the very informative resource, this is how Foucault distinguishes between moral codes and ethics:

Ethics concerns the kind of relation one has to oneself. The essential condition for the practice of ethics is freedom, the ability to choose one action, not another. Foucault makes a distinction between moral codes (which are simply collections of rules and precepts) and ethics. He suggests there are four aspects to how the individual constitutes him/herself as the moral subject of his or her own actions. The first aspect relates to the part of the individual which acts as the focus of moral conduct. The second aspect concerns what makes an individual recognize their moral obligations. The third aspect relates to the means by which individuals transform and work on themselves. The fourth aspect concerns what sort of person an individual might want to be.

If you are interested in reading up on how Foucault explicates these points, they are addressed in The History of Sexuality II: The Use of Pleasure, see 'Introduction'.

Following Foucault's definition, the moral code (well, one of them, at any rate)--the rule and precept--at stake in the Wikileaks affair is 'the right to free speech'. But to live in line with this moral code--to be transformed by the truth of this moral code--the four aspects of ethics delineated above are involved. 

  • Firstly, what part of ourselves do we work on so that we could uphold 'the right to free speech'?  Do we choose to work on our mind or body, our thoughts, speech or actions--desires, pleasures, dislikes, habits, etc? In the context of our professional lives, our social lives, our personal lives?
  • Secondly, why do we feel an obligation to uphold 'the right to free speech'? Is it because we want to be a good citizen, is it because we regard ourselves as part of a wider community, or is it because we feel a higher calling to 'God', 'humanity', 'the art of life' or something else?
  • Thirdly, how do we work on ourselves so that we could uphold 'the right to free speech'? Do we put ourselves out there, attending rallies, signing petitions, and engaging in various activities to promote greater honesty, or do we try to become more mindful of our everyday thought, speech, and action so that we may live more honestly in our personal, day-to-day interactions?
  • Fourthly, to what ends are we aiming for? Are we aiming to become a better citizen, a more socially-engaged member of the community, or are we aiming to become a more holistic individual, to achieve more tranquility or harmony and so forth in our lives?

Thinking these things through, and taking into consideration the limitations of my present circumstances, where others choose to focus their energies in various activities, I've made the decision to work on myself at the more personal level, choosing to be more honest in my everyday thought, speech and action, my everyday dealings with others.

This is why I ask the question in my previous post, 'What does wikileaks tell us that we don't already know?' We all already know that 'the right to free speech' ought to be defended, but this still leaves open the question 'How do we live and embody those virtues that the right to free speech defends: honesty and integrity?'

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wikileaks: what does it tell us that we don't already know? (Or, a roundabout way of asking 'What am I to do?')

(LONG POST BELOW. I posted this on my Facebook profile last week and have been reflecting on it since. The following represents my attempt to think the Wikileaks saga through ideas about the connection between knowledge, power, and ethics which I derive from Foucault. These ideas were not clearly expressed here I think, so I want to try articulate them in a follow up post which I hope to get round to writing shortly. Also, I use a derogatory term below and have not attempted to hide it with symbols like *#@. I find them quite pointless because it is quite obvious what word I am using. Please understand that I use the word as a kind of intertextual strategy, for a certain rhetorical effect. I do not use it to denigrate women.) 

First of all, let me just say straight off that I am morally supportive of what Julian Assange is doing with Wikileaks—no doubts about that. It’s kinda silly to have to preface my thoughts like that, but I’ve had people totally missing the irony and/or figurativeness of what I say in the past, interpreting my words more literally than I’d intended them to be.  So I’ve learnt that one cannot be too careful…

In any event, Wikileaks: what does it tell us that we don’t already know?—namely, and I think a Mr. Jarvis Cocker has put it most eloquently, that cunts are still running the world? Here's the song (smash the system! heh...) :

Why am I asking this question? Well, because when I read about the ongoing debacle and contemplate the feelings it arouses it me, I can only describe them as feelings of righteous indignation and impotent rage. And when I reflect further on my feelings, I cannot help but wonder: what good do these feelings do? Sure, feelings of anger and indignation can sometimes spur people into action, and if that works for you, by all means go ahead and do whatever it is you feel spurred on to do. Many great achievements have been prompted by righteous indignation, if not anger.

But when I contemplate further, I cannot help but wonder if these feelings of righteous indignation and impotent rage merely feedback into the wider climate of suspicion, fear, and paranoia that is paralysing our current global political environment. Wikileaks, as I see it, is an attempt to combat these debilitating feelings of suspicion, fear, and paranoia that reverberate throughout the world— exposing how the various acts of injustice carried out against humanity are prompted by these negative feelings and how they are encouraged to a large degree by the powers that be. To this extent, good on Assange for doing what he can to counteract this state of affairs. However, in feeling indignation and anger, how exactly am I, on a personal day-to-day basis, changing this state of affairs? In reading the documents revealed by Wikileaks and feeling vindicated about the feelings of suspicion I’ve harboured against those cunts running the world, am I not feedbacking into the current climate of anger, suspicion, and paranoia, the very negative affects that are paralysing the world? I am here taking the view that the individual, in their everyday movements and interactions, phases across different social bodies and is, at the end of the day, not separate from the processes that make up the collective.

These thoughts were prompted by my reading of the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the renowned queer thinker whose work was highly influential in crystallising my commitment to a non-dualistic political strategy that seeks to move beyond the restrictive confines of identity-based politics. In her essay, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, she reflects on a conversation she had with a friend about the probable natural history of HIV.  I have to thank my partner for reminding me that the essay title is probably alluding to this Carly Simon classic: 

Anyway coming back to Sedgwick, perhaps it’s best I quote her:

Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the US military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. “Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,” she said. “But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?

In the article, Sedgwick is attempting to think beyond the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ elaborated by such figures as Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and their successors which has typified much of critical sociocultural analysis. In relation to the above conversation, she writes:

Patton’s comments suggests that for someone to have an unmystified, angry view of large and genuinely systemic oppression does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences. To know that the origin or spread of HIV realistically might have resulted from a state-assisted conspiracy—such knowledge is, as it turns out, separable from the question of whether the energies of a given AIDS activist intellectual or group might best be used in the tracing and exposure of such a possible plot. They might, but then again, they might not. Though ethically very fraught, the choice is not self-evident; whether or not to undertake this highly compelling tracing-and-exposure project represents a strategic and local decision, not necessarily a categorical imperative. Patton’s response to me seemed to open a space for moving from the rather fixated question ‘Is a particular piece of knowledge true and how can we know?’ to the further questions: ‘What does knowledge do—the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already knows? How, in short, is knowledge performative, and how best does one move among its causes and effects?

Sedgwick is largely concerned with academic critical methods here. I don’t claim to understand her fully. But putting her academic language aside, the argument for moving beyond ‘paranoid’ critical reading strategies to more ‘reparative’ critical reading strategies interests me and I sense some relevance to the issue at hand re: Wikileaks, though I concede I may not be articulating it well here. A ‘paranoid’ strategy assumes that the unveiling of ideological lies is what the critical endeavour should aim for. But what if in adopting narrowly such a strategy, we reproduce those very conditions of mistrust, paranoia, and suspicion it seeks to counteract? A ‘reparative’ strategy, on the other hand, as the term suggests, seeks to, well, repair the state of affairs. It is a commitment, taken in good faith (for we can never know in advance with certainty, and where is the possibility of friendship if not ‘good faith’?), to the possibility that things need not be the way they are, that they can be otherwise, that they can be better. 

Again, I must say that my reading of Sedgwick may be overly simplistic and I must also concede that I'm borrowing her arguments for a different context. But in any case, in relation to this Wikileaks affair: Yes, cunts are still running the world. But don’t we all know that already? Don’t we all know that these cunts are, well, conniving, manipulative cunts, and that to a large extent they secure their hold on power by orchestrating various events that keep the world in the grips of fear, anxiety, paranoia, and suspicion?

These things are, to be sure, deplorable. But I cannot help but wonder: surely, to work our way out of this state of affairs, we need to find different ways of thinking and acting that do not reproduce these negative affects, because if I've learnt anything (quite painfully) from my personal experience of these feelings, it is that they feed upon themselves, a vicious cycle. How can we, then, as Sedgwick suggests, engage in more ‘reparative’ modes of political action?

Well, I can see how this can come across as a kind of New Age-hippie-oh-let’s-all-learn-to-love-one-another-and-heal-the-world kind of attitude. But maybe that’s not an entirely irrelevant metaphor. I mean, for those of us who are committed to be environmentally-engaged: regardless of the debates about the science of climate change, regardless of what Wikileaks reveals about how the US government has hampered climate change politics, at the end of the day, I think we can all agree that that the world’s ecology needs some kind of healing and repairing. Moreover, why commit ourselves to such a position if we don’t see ourselves as part of and thoroughly dependent on the environment we live in—and if we are thoroughly enmeshed with the ecology (a word which I use to refer to both the natural and social environments and the interconnections between the two), why should we be separate from that process of healing and repairing so needed by the environment of which we are a part?

So at the end of the day, if I ask myself: How does it feel to be angry and indignant all the time (even if there were good reasons to feel like that)? Honestly, I have to say it sucks to feel like that. To be sure, it can sometimes indirectly make me feel good about myself—‘I knew it! I was right!’—but what good does it do, really, to keep patting myself on the back and reaffirming something I already know?

So I guess what I’m trying to ask, after all these longwinded rambling thoughts, is: What am I to do? Right here, right now, in my everyday movements and passages and encounters with others, whilst this affair is brewing over? As Sedgwick points out, the decision to take the route of tracing-and-exposure (compelling as it may be) is not self-evident; it is a strategic and local decision, not a categorical imperative. So what then? What do I choose to do? And more importantly, what is the intention--which according to my Buddhist-influenced thinking is the primary motivator of any ethical behaviour, prompted less by rational thinking than nonrational (which is not to say irrational) feelings--underlying my decision to act in this way or that?

Gosh, this is giving me a headache. I need time to think this over. Need some coffee… Fairtrade? Well, don’t have many cafes here that sell fairtrade coffee so I’ll just have to settle for the ordinary kind. But at least the local baristas are nice. In the movements and passages of our everyday lives—the baristas earning a livelihood; I stopping by every now and then for a caffeine hit—we’ve developed a kind of unspoken friendship, such that I know they will return my gesture of good faith, smiling at me in return when I smile at them. In these moments, the circuitry of fear, suspicion, anger, paranoia paralysing the world somehow gets disrupted as we connect and reconnect in a lived, felt sense of relationality, if only briefly. What is there to know and what can be known about the politics of the global coffee trade and Wikileaks and what not (these issues are no doubt charged with moral significance) somehow becomes rather besides the point, in comparison to how I choose to act (in that brief passing moment charged with potentials) in relation to the other person, without whom there is no possibility for participation, for belonging, for things to be otherwise—for things to be, I hope, better.

In good faith,