Saturday, April 25, 2015

Part 28: (Coupling; Narcissus, the Other, and Compassion): 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, in which Flora Sapio responds to the conundrum of the self-loving self, and with the addition of a new guest, Ulisses Schwarz Viana (USV) who starts the discussion with a response to the conversation in Part 27.

 Contents: HERE

(USV) The question involved here is that of the inclusion of otherness. No self without the non-self, the other. In the end that is a necessity, otherness is a necessity. The sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann working on the issue of self-reference and hetero-referentility quotes Nicholas of Cusa, a Roman Catholic theologist from the Middle-Ages, who tried to explain why God created the Devil. Interpreting Nicholas of Cusa, Luhmann tells that God needed hetero-referentiality to observe in Devil his own Goodness. No reflexiveness, no self-consciousness without the other (the hetero-referential OTHER).

Otherness or hetero-refentiality is the only key to self-observation and reflexiveness. In other words, we need different forms of life, ways of thinking and of viewing the World to think about our own perceptions and to question them, in an enriching and complex experience. Adding complexity to our own self-experience.

Sometimes we come to the conclusion that "Hell is the others" (Jean-Paul Sartre), but, as I think, experiencing otherness (individual or social otherness) is an opportunity to have a moment of reflexion on our own "hell".

No change without otherness, pure self-reference is always only circularity and 'recursiveness'.

Otherness is the chance of stimulating the "cognitive openness" of the self. Hetero-referentiality not only to change but also to find happiness in what you are.

(LCB) Agreed Ulisses, and the semiotic insights at the source of both theology and modern systems theory suggests, over and over, that in the construction of the world, the other is the measure of the self.  And, indeed, that insight has produced the most exquisite theory, and the deepest knowledge of the self in others-  That insight makes aggregation possible.  E pluribus unum. It accounts fro everything frm language to societal organization.  It is infinitely malleable and capable of the greatest expressions beyond good and evil, though judged by those terms applied from within the social organs created to make those assessments for the good of those orders.  The public good is the ultimate expression of the semiotic foundation of the self-in-others.  That is the journey that our old philosophers mad made a thousand different ways, to describe the expression of that principle within the context of their lived realities.  That makes both for variety and sameness .  Perhaps that is why philosophy is at bottom so coherent, an infinite variation of the same insight spun out over the context of the space in which it is developed (yet again).

That, perhaps, is why Narcissus is such a powerful story, and a warning. He was an individual without a referent, indeed one who rejected the other as a mirror of the self.  And thus a monster.  But a very pretty monster, one of the most popular flowers in the world, and a personality disorder.  They are both the same in the minds of humans.  And the aggregate human, the amalgam of the self-and-other would be right.  The disconnected individual is incompatible with humanity, at least the human that rejects humanity--the aggregation of the self--if not of the body then a foreign element within it, a deviation, a virus which must be contained (by humanity's white cells, and expelled or, as in the myth, turned in a beautiful warning. And thus the question that tends to be dismissed or ignored--is it possible to detach the individual without the monstruosity of Narcissus or Satan?

(FS) Those of Narcissus and the Shaytan are two very powerful myths - they illuminate two different ways in which hetero-referentiality can be interpreted, and the different consequences of each one of them. Openness of the self allows for knowledge of oneself and others, and involves a process of mutual change, adaptation, and evolution.

Closure of the self makes knowledge of oneself and others impossible, it is a refusal to change, and as observation of the natural world proves, an organism that does not change and evolve becomes extinct.

As cultural mediators and all those who operate in intercultural contexts know, to know the Other we have to speak the language of the Other. Speaking the language of the Other is what Echo does in the myth of Narcissus. In fact, she responds to Narcissus' shouting “who's there?” by shouting back the same question (as migrants do when our coast guard hails their boats) but Narcissus eventually turns a blind eye to her (...the 1,000 persons who've just died at sea...). Narcissus refusal to know Echo prompts Nemesis' decision to entice him to the pool, where he drowns while admiring his own beauty. Narcissus' arch-enemy was not Nemesis or Echo, but his rejection of hetero-referentiality and otherness, his refusal to listen to otherness. Knowledge of the Self does not take place in a void, but by and through the Other. Knowing the Other would have meant finding out that the Other was just a different mode of the Self, and such knowledge would have caused a change in the Self and in the Other. The refusal to try and know the Other instead closed any space that may have existed between Nemesis and polis.

The Self can only treat the Other as it treats itself...and Narcissus didn't really know who he was, until the moment when he saw his reflection in the pool. Could it be that Narcissus saw the possibility of hetero-referentiality as a threat, that he believed he could not withstand Otherness? If so, the refusal to communicate with the Other can be read as a sign of a deep structural weakness of the Self...

The Shaytan (Satan) is another archetypal Other. Shaytan (Satan) means adversary: he is an opponent – he who is so different from the Self as to be its opposite. An opponent is also someone who insinuates doubt in our mind as to our beliefs – as an adversary in a debate or a participant in a conversation or a casual chat. The story of Job as it is narrated by Christianity, Judaism and Islam is well-known, so I will not rehearse it here. In all three accounts, the Shaytan tests the solidity of Job's belief system, by insinuating doubt in Job's mind, and he does so by depriving Job of what is valuable to most people: Job loses his social status (wealth), his most immediate social circle (the family) and his body and self-image undergo a radical change (the plagues). Differently from Narcissus, who fled away from Echo, Job faces the confrontation with the Other (the Shaytan). Job is aware that his confrontation with the Other will likely shatter his beliefs about what is truly valuable to the Self, and expose him to the criticism and ill-advice of his three friends (a mild social censure). Job, however, accepts the challenge of doubt because his belief system (God) allows communication with the Other. Not only can Job stand the test posed by Otherness, he becomes a richer man through it.

(LCB) And thus, Satan wins, whether he insinuates doubt or certainty. For might it be that Satan won his bet with God (or God with himself), and thus the abruptness of the end when, game over, everything is reset?  An act of compassion from the other to the self?

(FS) I referred to “compassion” as unconditional self-acceptance (=self-love) that leads to the unconditional acceptance of any other person outside of one's own group (= love of others). What love of others is remains unthought.

I am hesitating to use the word love, as the chain of meanings this word evokes provides an ineffective solution to the problem of hetero-referentiality, leading either towards a sectarian love or an abstract and therefore impracticable universal love. Love is however an extremely popular code word for a hierarchy of states that starts from aesthetic pleasures (“I love that painting”), goes through sensual pleasures and culminates with intellectual and/or spiritual pleasures. [That these states should occur and be experienced separately, as some have implied, is perplexing: the emotional, physical and mental dimension of the human being are an organic and inseparable whole, and pleasurable states cannot be reduced to a single dimension.]

Exactly as the love of the Self involves elements of knowledge, acceptance, care and responsibility towards every dimension of the Self, the love of the Other means knowing, accepting, caring and taking responsibility for every dimension and need of the Other. I will call this process “love”, and I believe that this kind of “love” is very similar to the maintenance of a car, and very distant from the romantic, sentimental and ultimately pitiful love that is pandered and peddled to us.

The archetypal situation in which this different kind of “love” is given and taken is the situation where you are driving down an unlit road at night and you have to suddenly stop to replace a burst tyre in the car of the Other, who is unable to do it. According to certain stereotypes, changing a tyre is a very virile thing to do, yet changing a tyre does involve acknowledging, taking care for and being responsive to the emotional, physical and mental needs of the Other. If you drive a car, you have to take into account that sooner or later you may get a burst tyre, yet not everyone can take a burst tyre lightly. The Other may perceive their inability to change a tyre as a personal shortcoming, and experience negative feelings about themselves. Joking about the burst tyre can dispel the Other's negative feelings without belittling the Other or making them feel pitied. Changing tyres allows the Other to drive back home, addressing a very concrete physical need – no one likes to sleep in a car on a deserted road in the mountains. Changing tyres and watching how tyres are changed is a way to transmit knowledge, and therefore responds to one of the intellectual needs of Self and Others.

This kind of “love” consists in the performance of actions which are voluntary, disinterested and grounded in the interconnected abilities of the Self. The Self can relate to the Other only on the same terms and in the same ways it relates to the Self (= people will love others exactly in the same way as they love themselves), and in this sense hetero-referentiality (“com-passion”) is action that blurs each one of the predicational attributes constraining the true Self and the true Other, and goes beyond all norms and hierarchies. The norms and hierarchies this “love” shatters are not those violated by Romeo and Juliet or by the Aristocrat, the Bishop, the Judge and Banker of Donatien Alphonse François. Each one of the acts performed by Romeo and Juliet, and by the four wealthy men takes place within a much more narrower domain defined by the concepts of storge, philia, eros (not agape though) and is in turn determined by the Aristotelian taxonomy of love.

The progression through the different stages of love conceptualized by Aristotle, and accepted by some of his followers begins with love between family members and culminates in universal love (agape). In thinking about hierarchies of love, I noticed how while storge, philia and eros are in part biologically driven, expressed physically and known by everyone, agape (= universal love) is the only kind of love that cannot be embodied. Agape lacks all emotional and physical components, and is limited to an intellectual and/or spiritual dimension devoid of “care” and responsibility. Therefore if “love” is not sentimentalism or abstract reflection but action, acting upon agape is not humanely possible. At the receiving end of storge, philia and eros there are real human beings, while at the receiving end of agape one finds an abstract idea of universal humanity. Thomas the Apostle could touch Christs' wounds and see that his friend was real, but we cannot touch the wounds our acts of agape are meant to heal, and we often do not know which mechanisms lie behind the cure - a cure that in some cases may be worse than the illness.

Aristotelian conceptions of love define the Other not as the person the Other is in the real world, but in terms of measurable and analyzable attributes: income, race, gender, height, weight, age, educational level etc. They shape the identity of the Self and the identity on the Other. The philia-eros-storge triad determines what love is, the conditions the Other should meet in order to receive love, what kind of love the Self can give to the Other, and how love should be given. The triad dictates what love is not, when the Self has no moral obligation to love, whom the Self cannot love, and what acts the Self must require before the Self can grant love. This love is not unconditional, it has to be earned through the performance of actions or the attempt to fit models of being imposed by the Other. It is not free, but strictly regulated by a set of explicit and implicit rules.

Love with the hidden catches of storge, philia or eros is toxic: it insinuates harmful ideas, feelings and emotional states in the Self, causing a debilitation of the Self. If the Self can only love the Other in exactly the same way as it loves itself, a poisoned and intoxicated Self will love the Other of a selfish, harmful and destructive love. As in matters of war, in matters of “love of the Self + love of the Other" the only rule that holds is the one whereby

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