Friday, March 27, 2015

Part 19: (The Natural Slave and the Old Philosophy?): Dialogues on a Philosophy for the Individual

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

With this post Flora Sapio and I (and friends from time to time) continue an experiment in collaborative dialogue. The object is to approach the issue of philosophical inquiry from another, and perhaps more fundamentally ancient, manner. We begin, with this post, to develop a philosophy for the individual that itself is grounded on the negation of the isolated self as a basis for thought, and for elaboration. This conversation, like many of its kind, will develop naturally, in fits and starts. Your participation is encouraged. For ease of reading Flora Sapio is identified as (FS), and Larry Catá Backer as (LCB).

The friends continue their discussion around the problem of the individual and the liberation project and in which Flora Sapio (FS) responds to Beitita Horm Pepulim and Larry Catá Backer.

Contents: HERE

(FS) Larry observed how domination (what he calls 'the individual being made') is exerted upon the individual by societal structures and by an individual's interior self - a self that has been brought down to its knees, bound and gagged by the norms of conventional morality. It is not by chance that I am using the tropes of domination to discuss processes of exterior and interior individuation. The pervasiveness of sadomasochist imagery in popular culture bears an evil and atrocious testimony to most people's acceptance of the cage of exterior and interior constraints of the self. He who hasn't watched 50 Shades of Grey, let him be the first to throw a stone. The freedom and the autonomy man can enjoy within the cage of exterior and interior constraints are Anastasia Steele's freedom and emancipation, with the significant difference that while Anastasia can leave Christian, you cannot leave the machine of exterior control, because the machine revolves around you. Your only choice is to deactivate those components of the machine that control you on the inside by shaping your self.

Some of the great philosophers of the past may want to make us sign a bondage and discipline contract with them, and worship the machines they have constructed. Therefore a first step is tearing up the contract, to find out for ourselves how the machine is structured. The prototype of all the machines that have been assembled to produce the structures of the world around us, and to shape our beliefs about them is the ontology of human beings Aristotle sketches out in the Politics and in the Nicomachean Ethics – the theory of the slave.

We can think of an ontology as an inventory of what exists in the world and a description of how all that exists in the world is related. An ontology however does more than just inventarizing and describing entities: it determines what exists and, conversely, what cannot exist. Some ontologies, such as plant taxonomies, are flexible: whenever a new plant species is discovered the existing taxonomy is changed to include the new species. Eliminating an entire plant species just to maintain the current taxonomy in good order would be unreasonable. Other ontologies are rigid. Ontologies that create and classify human beings and human behaviors belong to this latter kind. They prescribe how men should be and point out to the kinds of men that should not exist. Native Americans did not exist in the ontology European settlers to America used to classify men. According the indigenous peoples were exterminated. The behavior “walking down the street singing” exists in the ontology of human behaviors admissible in Beijing, therefore if you walk down the hutongs of Beijing singing, people will assume you are happy. The same behavior is not admissible in Hong Kong, so if you walk down Hong Kong Central singing people will believe you are mentally insane.

In his reasoning about human beings Aristotle used, among others, the concepts of “function” (ergon), “end/goal” (telos) and use (chrestai), the method of dualism and hierarchical classification.

If everything has been made for one single purpose, so he reasoned, man too must have a function, a single work or task to accomplish: “...nature makes nothing as the cutlers make the Delphic knife (...) but one thing for one purpose; for so each tool will be turned out in the finest perfection, if it serves not many uses but one." (Politics, [1252b] [1]). Therefore, the best possible condition of life man could aspire to was performing his function (ergon) well – quite literally functioning well. Aristotle moreover conceived of man as a being that existed in order to achieve some sort of ultimate goal: “...that which each thing is when its growth is completed we speak of as being the nature of each thing....the object for which a thing exists, its end, it its chief good” (Pol I, 1252 b [1]). According to this construction, man is a being whose reason to live is performing only one function, by using his body in a way that allows him to achieve his one and only goal. Having created his model of man – the Adam of Western philosophy – Aristotle proceeds to analyze him and classify him hierarchically, according to a logic of dualism and subordination. Aristotle admits that living entities exist as a whole, but in order to be analyzed and included in his ontology, they need to be separated into different parts: “In every other matter it is necessary to analyze the composite whole down to its uncompounded elements” (Pol. I, 1252 a [1]). Once two different parts have been found in man, one of them is defined as “ruling”, and supraordinated to the “subject” part:
“in every composite thing, where a plurality of parts...combined to make a single common whole, there is always found a ruling and a subject factor, and this characteristic of living things is present in them as an outcome of the whole of nature” (Pol. I, 1254 a [1])
In man, the soul rules over the body and intellect rules over the emotions. Between the sexes, men are superior to women. In the household, the husband rules over his wife and children. In a company, the boss rules over the employees etc. Once analysis and classification are iterated to include all living entities, the machine is ready to produce men and women.

The men and women churned out by this machine are extremely rational and logical beings, who invest most of their energies in performing the task that will drive them towards their ultimate goal. It is certainly possible to think that men and women may be defined as possessing more than only one function, and as working towards more than one goal. The machine does not forbid us to believe that we possess more than one function and can pursue more than one goal. What the machine rather does is dictating that one function and one goal must be predominant, and that everything else should be ancillary to the achievement of our Golden Dream...

The scaffolding built by Aristotle is an impalpable one, made as it is by ideas about our most proper function, our end and how we should use ourselves and our bodies. At the same time, it is very solid. Over the centuries, this scaffolding has supported many other ideas. Some of these have specified what the function of human beings is, others have been used to determine the end human beings should pursue, yet others have dictated how we should use ourselves. Aristotle and his acolytes have created a variety of mechanisms they have used to plug their philosophical, religious, social or political machines into the minds of some of the brightest people. Most of these mechanisms have become well ingrained in our minds, shaping how we think about ourselves and how we live our everyday private and public lives.

So enmeshed are we in the Aristotelian machine, that the mere thought of unplugging from it is fearsome to most, because if the machine weren't there to tell them who they are, what they should believe, what they should do, they wouldn't know how to live their lives. After all, remaining plugged into the machine is so much easier than stepping out of your physical and psychological comfort zone....

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