“The shift from the ‘why’ and ‘what’ to the ‘how’ implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes, and that the object of science is no longer nature or the universe but the history, the story of the coming into being, of nature or life or the universe....Nature, because it could be known only in processes which human ingenuity, the ingeniousness of homo faber, could repeat and remake in the experiment, became a process, and all particular natural things derived their significance and meaning solely from their function in the over-all process. In the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process. And whereas it is in the nature of Being to appear and thus disclose itself, it is in the nature of Process to remain invisible, to be something whose existence can only be inferred from the presence of certain phenomena.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Bookending Arendt’s consideration of the human condition “from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears” is her invocation of several “events, ” which she took to be emblematic of the modern world launched by the atomic explosions of the 1940s and the threshold of the modern age that preceded it by several centuries. The event she invokes in the opening pages is the launch of Sputnik in 1957; its companion events are named in the last chapter of the book--the discovery of America, the Reformation, and the invention of the telescope and the development of a new science.
Not once mentioned in The Human Condition, but, as Mary Dietz argued so persuasively in her Turning Operations, palpably present as a “felt absence,” is the event of the Shoah, the “hellish experiment” of the SS concentration camps, which is memorialized today, Yom HaShoah. Reading Arendt’s commentaries on the discovery of the Archimedean point and its application in modern science with the palpably present but textually absent event of the Holocaust in mind sheds new light on the significance of her cautionary tale about the worrying implications of the new techno-science of algorithms and quantum physics and its understanding of nature produced through the experiment.
What happens, she seems to be asking, when the meaning of all “particular things” derives solely from “their function in the over-all process”? If nature in all of its aspects is understood as the inter- (or intra-) related aspects of the overall life process of the universe, does then human existence, as part of nature, become merely one part of that larger process, differing perhaps in degree, but not kind, from any other part?
Recently, “new materialist” philosophers have lauded this so-called “posthumanist” conceptualization of existence, arguing that the anthropocentrism anchoring earlier modern philosophies—Arendt implicitly placed among them?—arbitrarily separates humans from the rest of nature and positions them as masters in charge of the world (universe). By contrast, a diverse range of thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, William Connolly, Diana Coole, and Cary Wolfe have drawn on a variety of philosophical and scientific traditions to re-appropriate and “post-modernize” some form of vitalism. The result is a reformulation of an ontology of process—what Connolly calls “a world of becoming”—as the most accurate way to understand matter’s dynamic and eternal self-unfolding. And, consequentially, it also entails transforming agency from a human capacity of “the will” with its related intentions to a theory of agency of “multiple degrees and sites...flowing from simple natural processes, to human beings and collective social assemblages” with each level and site containing “traces and remnants from the levels from which it evolved,” which “affect [agency’s] operation.” (Connolly, A World Becoming, p. 22, emphasis added). The advantage of a “philosophy/faith of radical immanence or immanent realism,” Connolly argues, is its ability to engage the “human predicament”: “how to negotiate life, without hubris or existential resentment, in a world that is neither providential nor susceptible to consummate mastery. We must explore how to invest existential affirmation in such a world, even as we strive to fend off its worst dangers.”
An implicit ethic of aiming to take better care of the world, “to fold a spirit of presumptive generosity for the diversity of life into your conduct” by not becoming too enamored with human agency resides in this philosophy/faith. In the entanglements she explores between human and non-human materiality—a “heterogeneous monism of vibrant bodies” —one can discern similar ethical concerns in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. “It seems necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things.” Conceptualizing nature as “an active becoming, a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” Bennett affirms a “vital materiality [that] congeals into bodies, bodies that seek to persevere or prolong their run,” (p. 118, emphasis in the original) where “bodies” connotes all forms of matter. And she contends that this vital materialism can “enhance the prospects for a more sustainability-oriented public.” Yet, without some normative criteria for discerning the ways this new materialism can work toward “sustainability,” it is by no means obvious how either a declaration of faith in the “radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the non-human” or having greater “attentiveness to the indispensable foreignness that we are” would lead to a change in political direction toward more gratitude and away from more destructive patterns of production and consumption. The recognition of our vulnerability could just as easily lead to renewed efforts to truncate or even eradicate the “foreignness” within.
Nonetheless, although these and other accounts call for a reconceptualization of concepts of agency and of causality, none pushes as far toward a productivist/performative account of matter and meaning as does Karen Barad’s theory of “agential realism.” Drawing out the implications of Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Barad develops a theory of how “subjects” and “objects” are produced as apparently separable entities by “specific material configurings of the world” which enact “boundaries, properties, and meanings.” And, in her conceptualization, “meaning is not a human-based notion; rather meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility...Intelligibility is not an inherent characteristic of humans but a feature of the world in its differential becoming. The world articulates itself differently...[H]uman concepts or experimental practices are not foundational to the nature of phenomena. ” The world is immanently real and matter immanently materializes.
At first glance, this posthumanist understanding of reality seems consistent with Arendt’s own critique of Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics and her understanding of the implicitly conditioned nature of human existence. “Men are conditioned beings because everything they come into contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.” Nonetheless, there is a profound difference between them. For Barad, “world” is not Arendt’s humanly built habitat, the domain of homo faber (which does not necessarily entail mastery of nature, but always involves a certain amount of violence done to nature, even to the point of “degrading nature and the world into mere means, robbing both of their independent dignity.” (H.C., p. 156, emphasis added.) “World” is matter, the physical, ever-changing reality of an inherently active, “larger material configuration of the world and it ongoing open-ended articulation.” Or is it?
Since this world is made demonstrably real or determinate only through the design of the right experiment to measure the effects of, or marks on, bodies, or “measuring agencies” (such as a photographic plate) made or produced by “measured objects” (such as electrons), the physical nature of this reality becomes an effect of the experiment itself. Despite the fact that Barad insists that “phenomena do not require cognizing minds for their existence” and that technoscientific practices merely manifest “an expression of the objective existence of particular material phenomena” (p. 361), the importance of the well-crafted scientific experiment to establishing the fact of matter looms large.
Why worry about the experiment as the basis for determining the nature of nature, including so-called “human nature? For Arendt, the answer was clear: “The world of the experiment seems always capable of becoming a man-made reality, and this, while it may increase man’s power of making and acting, even of creating a world, far beyond what any previous age dared imagine...unfortunately puts man back once more—and now even more forcefully—into the prison of his own mind, into the limitations of patterns he himself has created...[A] universe construed according to the behavior of nature in the experiment and in accordance with the very principles which man can translate technically into a working reality lacks all possible representation...With the disappearance of the sensually given world, the transcendent world disappears as well, and with it the possibility of transcending the material world in concept and thought.”
The transcendence of representationalism does not trouble Barad, who sees “representation” as a process of reflection or mirroring hopelessly entangled with an outmoded “geometrical optics of externality.” But for Arendt, appearance matters, and not in the sense that a subject discloses some inner core of being through her speaking and doing, but in the sense that what is given to the senses of perception—and not just to the sense of vision—is the basis for constructing a world in common. The loss of this “sensually given world” found its monstrous enactment in the world of the extermination camps, which Arendt saw as “special laboratories to carry through its experiment in total domination.”
If there is a residual humanism in Arendt’s theorizing it is not the simplistic anthropocentrism, which takes “man as the measure of all things,” a position she implicitly rejects, especially in her critique of instrumentalism. Rather, she insists that “the modes of human cognition [science among them] applicable to things with ‘natural’ qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?” (H.C., p. 11, emphasis in the original) And then there is the question of responsibility.
We may be unable to control the effects of the actions we set in motion, or, in Barad’s words, “the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails.”
But no undifferentiated assignation of agency to matter, or material sedimentations of the past “ingrained in the body’s becoming” can release us humans from the differential burden of consciousness and memory that is attached to something we call the practice of judgment. And no appeal to an “ethical call...written into the very matter of all being and becoming” will settle the question of judgment, of what is to be done. There may be no place to detach ourselves from responsibility, but how to act in the face of it is by no means given by the fact of entanglement itself. What if “everything is possible.”?
-Kathleen B. Jones
Decompression: Before my hands heal I should sit down and find a way to wrap this up. I have been out of the desert (Black Rock City) for over a week now. I am back in the state of ‘normalcy,’ and yet I cannot help to feel that this ‘normal’ world is the exception. Have I been bedazzled, indoctrinated by some paganistic ritual? Did the “party” get me?
“Playa hands,” or feet, is the term used to describe what happens to ones hands, and feet, when they are overexposed to the conditions of the desert. They begin cracking -- “playafied” -- like the desert floor itself. Moisturizer helps, but the secret is to spray them down with vinegar every morning -- something about alkaline, acidity, etc...
I was out there for almost three weeks. Blood had begun to escape through some of the cracks. Yet, amid the sensory overload that is Burning Man -- coupled with the knowledge that whatever happens in the desert is hyper-transient -- your bodily concerns become secondary to the need to engage the world created for you. You celebrate despite the discomfort, or maybe even in part driven on by it. You don’t want to miss anything.
My hands have almost healed, new skin appearing underneath. I miss the damage. I miss what Burning Man proved.
I was moved towards Burning Man by the stories of others. What most attracted me to these stories were the themes of ritual, ceremony, and story telling. What I experienced, as a byproduct of being there, is the stuff I do not want to leave behind -- the concepts of ‘intent of environment’ (architecture and guiding principles), and ‘currency of gratitude.’ To feel complete, my new skin must now make space for these.
For this past week I have been needling my brain to pin down the difference between ritual and ceremony. I find it easy to mix them up. Why is there such confusion? Ultimately, I have come to see ritual as a loosely prescribed set of practices, or intentions, while ceremony is the celebration, or interpretation, of the prescribed by the practitioner. Certainly some anthropologists and theologists will find fault with my definitions. Well, I challenge you to bring me another set and if it reveals itself to be an exercise beyond semantics, I will be happy to sacrifice my hard won approximations. But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Definitions are the products of their society. They move, evolve... disappear. They are ‘approximate,’ in accordance to the pressure exercised upon them by what I call The Social Body -- our communal practices, beliefs and values, toys (inventions), cultural narratives, and the principles we deduce from the tangible matter of our environment.
Maybe what’s most worth exploring in the road towards a definition of ritual and ceremony is the location of the struggle itself: Why do we so struggle in defining them? What does this say about our society, and its practices? In the simplistic thinking somewhat necessary to engage such questions I had hoped to use my time at Burning Man as an aperture into the society at large. I brought my child brain, the one asks to see before judgement -- the one open to signs of proof.
What burning Man provides is a scaffolding of a society, a set of pillars (in its principles and architecture) to be built upon, and filled in by the participants. It is in this movement, from the scaffolding -- from the available structures -- towards the experience, that ‘ritual’ is made into ‘ceremony.’ It is where meaning is formed, and body is found. The concept of the ‘social body’ implies more then mere existence, or survival, more than just the fractals of society; it is a narrative, it is consciousness (a self-aware organism, capable of self correction), it is the accumulation of meaning.
The set of principles for this experimental society (Burning Man) are “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” To survive, and thrive in the desert, and to feel a part of the experience, one must find their own relationship to these principles, otherwise the experience will be tedious and lonely.
The other part of the scaffolding is the architectural intent. There is the city (its streets), its coordinates measured in the units of time, and thus when you arrive at a place you arrive to a time -- time is appropriated into a location (brings us closer to the definition of ‘being here’ doesn’t it?); there is the Playa floor, a space for various art installations; the camp space, the themes to be supplied by each individual camp, each camp identifying its own purpose; the Man, to be empowered with whatever meaning one finds necessary to bring to it; and the Temple, a spiritual space to be used for remembering loved ones, the execution of weddings, and a creative space for communion. There is also Center Camp, where you will find lectures, performances, coffee (it is in fact the only place where you can “buy” something). A friend of mine described Center Camp as “the heart of Burning Man.” Maybe because this is where the exchange of stories, connectivity, takes place.
The scaffolding of ritual is provided (a labor intensive process on the levels of planning, recruiting, development, and construction). In my conversation with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, he summed up the intention behind this social scaffolding like this, “I am, we are, it is.” He was not pointing to himself, or to the structure of the Man, rather, the gesture was towards the “participant.” No further elaboration is given. Meaning is not handed out here, nor is it imposed. What is implied by this is that the highest level of “participation,” is to give meaning. This is “radical inclusivity.” No ones experience is void. You can come here for a great party, or to say goodbye to a passed parent. You can have your own vision quest after sunrise, way out in deep playa, or you can don the outfit of a renegade and strap yourself up in the Thunder-Dome, just to see how you feel in the costume of primal power. All experiences are affirmed, accepted. The forms are created for you, and you fill in the space. Two experiences may further elaborate on this.
One night I was warned to wear white. “The white procession,” is what I was told. After being out all night, meeting people, seeing art pieces on the playa and dancing, we made our way to the temple for sunrise. After a night of being engulfed in noise and neon lights, we arrived at the wooden, ornate temple. The quiet, a gesture of respect to the space, was hyper-pronounced all around us. People praying, crying, meditating, talking in the open space. There were pictures and poems and notes stapled to every reachable surface of the structure. As the sun began to rise a small ensemble of musicians began to play soft wooden instruments. More and more people showed up, wearing white. Some in intricate feather outfits, some on stilts, some in a simple white shirt and seersucker pants (well, me!) -- the playa was flooded in white. I have been to spiritual spaces from Eastern Europe, to Europe, to the U.S., but the power of that space, its sincerity, was unlike anything I have ever experienced (I have no elegant words for this -- it was really something “I have never experienced”).
I can tell you more of that morning, the conversations, the white anonymous mask I had carried with me, the umbrella we found, the way this umbrella became empowered through a dance, through the power of movement and intention, when an art-car showed up with a music group called the Human Experience, how that empowerment became an opportunity for someone to say goodbye to her mother who had passed two years ago. How the anonymous mask, as more people in white arrived, as people celebrated the space and the new day, was endowed with personality of the dancers behind it. But I will simply say that ‘we filled the space,’ and allow you to unpack this meaning. Did my scientifically educated mind attempt to balk at this scene? I am trained to bring skepticism, but skepticism is only useful in service to a greater goal -- to seek out what is true in the arena of living. Otherwise it becomes a defense against its initial intention. To be disarmed, to be taken-in by a communal experience, to sense the meaning of the practice, is to be a living part of the ‘social body.’
Another morning we had wondered out to deep playa, where the installations are few and far in between. There we stumbled upon a smaller temple (about 20 feet high) made of diamond shaped wooden pods -- a hive. Inside sat a man with a hot stove and four people joining him in a circle. On a low table before him were five glass ramekins filled with tea. As we approached he took two more out of his bag and added them to the already existing ones, making the pattern of a diamond on the table, now reflecting the shape of the pods. We accepted the invitation. On a cold desert morning a hot cup of tea is the power of the sunrise. Soon my partner took out a ceremonial orchid fragrance and offered it up to the others. We sat there in the quiet, warmed up and without hurry, without any knowledge of the time. Tea, orchid fragrances, tarot cards, all become an invitation to converse -- to join, to exchange, to fill-in the space. We sat for two hours and the tea master told us of his camp and how it was their mission to keep tea in this space, and his fiance and work with a non-profit music space on the West coast. There were individual pods about forty yards off to one side of the structure, the side that faced the central playa and the camp spaces. Later I found similar pods scattered throughout the playa, including inside the base of The Man. Call it metaphysics, call it the construction of myth, but after the tea experience, every time I saw one of the pods, I could not help but to feel the transmission of that experience. The space of ritual became empowered through the formation of our ceremony, and the experience felt transmitted through association from portal to portal. Is that not the fabric of culture and meaning? Is that not how we once created a society worth participating in? Practices, intention, invitation, and room for interpretation, is that not the scaffolding of purpose and faith?
If I had to mold that space into a single definition I would call it an ‘intentional space holder.’ The camp, committed to keep a tea going in that structure, held space for participants -- for the arrival of stories (the people that bring them, and the articles that facilitate them). And this is another crucial memento that I carry from Burning Man. How often do we sit down and create a story between us? How versed are we today in exchanging myth? We exchange information at a rapid pace, having now been conditioned to advertise ourselves at every opportunity. We lobby the enterprise of self, and self today is an entity that is simply trying to survive -- survive in a plethora of other voices. We seek “hits,” and, “tweets,” attention to a carefully crafted mask. With painful detail we foster an identify that can “sell” and we update its status in a witty, seemingly effortless, “I have nothing to hide” fashion, so that we become “liked,” so that our circle of “network connections” can explode. We, each, becoming conditioned to present a face on a book, but without dimensions to it. How are we known? Do we now even know what to be known is? How many, or how few, of our actions are intentioned with the creation of meaning? How much in our repertoire of communication comes from a departure from the the practice of being seen, a false conditioning to define ourselves through the limiting shapes of business, career, education, ‘appropriate‘ culture defined beliefs -- assimilation? Assimilation, but to what? Have we each become a corporation of isolated creatures -- human inc.? And have we fallen into the practice of survival (holding ground) rather then the practice of exploration (creating space)? These are lofty questions, I know. And yet, is not our struggle in defining “story telling” and “connectivity” similar to the struggle in defining “ritual” and “community?” Could this struggle of definitions point towards us having taken for granted the initial pillars of community forming? Having moved away from something essential, could we have paralyzed the ‘social body?’
I have no clear answers to these questions. Only the sense that some of what I experienced at Burning Man helps to redirect my personal exploration of these subjects back to an older mode, to a practice that I had already sensed absent, yet one which when I am faced with, I recognize as essential. In part, this rerouting is somehow centered in the principles behind the event.
For those looking for more tangible examples to the power of “participant,” consider this: Burning Man, for a week the third largest city in Nevada, has almost no crime rate. It is a city that literally leaves nothing behind in trash, or MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) as it is called here. Everyone brings their own trash bags and collects MOOP while on the playa. In fact, when a group of Nevada policy makers came to examine Burning Man their collective surprise was centered on the absence of both public trash receptacles, and trash. Participants take pride in their society -- there is ownership of the ‘social body.’
Finally, I move to “intent of environment” and “currency of gratitude.” Once I left Black Rock CIty, and drove back into “our” society, I experienced a sense of vertigo. At each new scene I encountered my mind worked to solve the riddle of intention. At a starbucks, I wanted to ask the barista, what is the theme of your camp? What experience are you charged to awake in me? When I order one of your “luxurious hot chocolate beverages for the sophisticated palate” what am I inviting? What are the articles of facilitation within this camp? At a strip-mall outside of Reno I asked, what is the purpose of this installation? What does this space inspire? What psychic and creative pressure does it exercise on me? I had become sensitive to these questions.
We float from one “must do” to another, from one operational space to the next. Our practice has become ‘to-accomplish,’ ‘to-get-done,’ a checklist of survival before we come back to the safety of homes and return to sleep. We know a thing by what it does, by what it does for us, but not what it does to us or what it ‘impresses’ upon us. We have become too busy in the ritual of ‘getting-by’ to examine this question. No wonder the irony of Frank Gehry having been tapped to design the new Facebook campus speaks so loudly to us (even if we’re not sure of the words): An abstractionist tapped to give tangible form to the institution that most clearly provides us with the venue through which we can best abstract the condition of being. The questions our our being are finally visible in the structures which surround us -- that’s the irony we now interact with. Arthur Koestler, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and others, had predicted and observed this movement -- the emergence of space that comments on the loss of self. And now we live within this triangle -- self, our physical structures, our virtual structures -- uncertain which is the commentary, which is the creator, and which is in service of which.
Lastly I want to comment on the major form of currency at Burning Man. As mentioned earlier the exchange of money is extremely rare. Yet, there is exchange. Millions of dollars are spent yearly by individuals and groups, just to create an experience. I talked to a computer engineer who had been coming to Burning Man for five years. “It changed my life,” he said. “How?” “It made me want to give more, without asking for anything in return.” Such a cliche, right? You give without asking for anything in return, and you receive the gift of gratitude. Such a cliche, right..? And yet, this is the most obvious currency at Black Rock City. Each person is provided with an opportunity to form an experience for another. From the grand structures that hold space for everyone, to the theme camps that invite you to join them and pour gifts upon you -- from drinks to ice cream, to food, to conversation, to workshops, to tarot readings, to music, to showers and espresso, costumes, to confessionals, to the Thunder-Dome, to tea ceremonies, to trinkets and bracelets and other handcrafted articles of remembrance, to the extent of the human imagination. Such a cliche? Right? No competition, no “one-upmanship.” ‘You are invited,’ they say. You, are enough.
It is in the examination of such cliches that maybe we can begin a return to that place where we lost meaning. When did we decide that we are too busy, too smart, to be truly humanist? What made us this? The humanist tradition asks us to examine our being on every level -- the concentric circles of community (world, culture, self -- it, we, I). To use the full spectrum of our gifts in examining the state of being. To not hold “contempt prior to investigation” because such a state can lead one to loose the trail, and a skill once in service (skepticism) becomes a master -- a true state of purposelessness. Maybe it’s time to stop and reexamine our society, to allow for our deepest and most personal, and maybe most essential questions and concerns on the state of being, to catch up to the gifts of our inventions.
The creating of space: I cannot get away from this idea. This is what Burning Man does. It creates a space (a space for meeting, for discovery, serendipity, a space for creating) and I, pressurized (or inspired) by this space -- its subtle intentions, architecture and principles -- am left to empower this space with meaning, to fill in the forms. I am endowed with the magic of meaning making. From ritual to ceremony I make matter -- I make this time (this space) matter.
Left to my own devices I perform the rituals of living, but without the movements of meaning. I struggle to empower the mask.
We have passed to the end of the existential age. Someone declared God to be dead. Science, with all its promise and discovery, has too failed in filling in the shapes of existence. Consumerism, the god of the 20th century, has also, ultimately, failed to provide us with the kind of purpose that leads to a greater belonging, or safety. The internet age, having initially promised to connect us, is now making us even more isolated. The onus is placed on us. On the individual. In this age of the spectator (internet, TV, emotional removal from the immediacy of our world) we are left to create a ceremony of our existence, to question our rituals, to define the space of our community, and our coordinates within it -- to become participants. To bring the social body back to a state of being.
Last week Jews of all stripes crowded into synagogues across the country to welcome the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and will return this weekend for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For those of us living the lives of the academically vagrant the High Holidays are accompanied by the challenge of finding a congregation in a new college town. The services I attended this year were held in the basement of a dormitory in the northeast. Fifteen people attended the first day of services, three people the second, excluding the Rabbi, his wife, and their Golden Retriever.
The High Holidays never fail to remind us, me at least, that Hannah Arendt’s thought is so clearly and so elegantly embroidered with Jewish themes, including remembrance, judgment, and forgiveness, not to mention natality, the anchor of much of her writing. However there are two dimensions to the High Holidays that I would like to look at that underpin these themes, both I believe in the practice of Jewish prayer and in Arendt’s work. They help to shed light on why those of us who may not attend synagogue during the year seek both a sanctuary and a congregation on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The first requirement of the reflective work that the High Holidays both affords us the chance to do and demands of us, is of course that we suspend the frenzy of life and turn ourselves over to contemplation, the realm of thought.
Human contemplating begins in many respects with a reveling. Before we can inspect the mind both Arendt and Jewish custom, ask us to marvel at it. Yet, we have in many respects abandoned the art of awe. As Marilynne Robinson argues in her 2010 book Absence of Mind we are in the midst of an era in which the mode of contemplation has been largely discredited since it is founded on the very thing, the singular human self, that threatens to contaminate that treasure of modernity: objectivity.
Robinson provides a critique of what she refers to as “parascientific” literature, faux-science, which she traces from the work of greats such as Malthus and Freud up to contemporaries such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. The chief feature uniting the multiple parascientific movements she examines is their attempt to banish what is both distinct and contingent about persons. She writes: “the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of ‘modern thought’ is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away.”
Robinson’s reference to this experience as that of the “felt mind” echoes Arendt’s account of thinking when she declares, “the only possible metaphor one may conceive of for the life of the mind is the sensation of being alive. Without the breath of life the human body is a corpse; without thinking the human mind is dead.” As the Rabbi leading the services I attended this Rosh Hoshannah remarks, and as many High Holiday commentaries draw our attention to, etymologically the word “spirit” is derived in many languages, including Hebrew, from the word for “breath.” Contemplation--whether in a classroom or in a shul--rests on the capacity to treat the mind not as an instrument for computation, or even argumentation, but quite literally as a muscle. Thinking, for Robinson and Arendt is equivalent only to the pulsation of the heart’s chambers, or the inhale and exhalation of the respiring body; phenomenon so staggering and exquisite any attempt to describe them inevitably rusts even our best language.
This notion of thought is derided by the Dawkins of our age, who are suspicious of anything that invites a discourse with the divine. The musculature, and hence the majesty, of the mind threatens both the proofs and the proscriptions they are trying to draw up about the behavioral laws that govern our species, and the direction of its destiny. What could be less absolute and law-bound than individuals’ conception and experience of grace? Yet as Robinson points out this literature often contains a strange contradiction since at the same time that the mind and all its messy subjectivity is banished, it is simultaneously called up and indicted, as, what she calls, a “perjured witness.”
The attempt to oust the individual mind from the palace of objective reason is accompanied by our obsession with its alleged fraudulence. While parascientists aim to eliminate the singular self, they also insist on telescoping in on the mind’s deviations; perhaps in an effort to legitimate their ultimate censuring of it. Stretched out on the shrink’s couch we have resigned ourselves to the fact that we will never be able to decipher our true desires or our criminal cravings. Instead we have come to take our cues for self-renovation from readings of the zodiacs that manage to predict in the same paragraph both the most suitable choice for footwear, and our ultimate fortune.
These too are theses of modernity Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fundamentally refute. The High Holidays reject the claim that because we often become ensnared in the trickeries of the psyche we therefore shouldn’t hold ourselves to account for the injuries we inflict, just as they challenge the idea that the possibilities for healing are out of our human hands. Sinning and atonement, Jews recall each autumn, are inextricable from the human condition, yet, if we engage in an honest consideration of them the process of genuine renewal and rebirth is ours for the making. However this consideration can only occur when we have stilled the panting ego enough to let the mind take its deeper draws.
This first dimension of the High Holidays, that of the self’s experience of its own mind, may initially seem opposed, but is intimately related to, their second essential dimension, public worship. We tend to find that contemplation, akin as we have seen to Arendtian thinking, is generally best performed on one’s own, sheltered from the intrusion of others or from worldy interference. Yet Jewish custom states that certain prayers cannot be recited without a minyan, or ten adults.
There is a kind of thinking we are told we can’t quite do unless we are included within a greater community. Because those assembled at the services I attended this year only tallied in the single digits on the second day, significant portions of the service had to be skipped. What is important about this is less the liturgy that was lost than what it is about the High Holidays that demands we come together in order to think, to pray.
There are various religious explanations for why it is we congregate in order to face our transgressions and ask for forgiveness, however I think Arendt may in fact gives us the best explanation, when she says famously and simply that “men, not Man, inhabit the earth.” Plurality is of course the bedrock of Arendt’s work on political action and while there is a tension between the vita activa and vita contemplativa I would argue that the High Holidays in one sense comes to dissolve it. The aim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is of course not only repair of personal relations but of the world. While the work of thought is each individual’s its subject is explicitly, what Marilynne Robinson calls in an Arendtian turn of phrase, our “tenure on this planet.”
It is the sheer presence of other thinking minds that activates the transformation of self and world and renders it real. This process goes by various names depending on the context in which it’s performed: sometimes we call it prayer, sometimes we call it politics, sometimes we call it poetry. Though we keep calling—and rightly so—transcendent--each of those occasions, in which an awe-filled encounter provokes us towards greater beauty, and greater justice.
The new issue of Lapham's Quarterly is out and one of the highlights is "Buying Tomorrow", by Jennifer Szalai. Amidst a tour de force rehearsal of the history of risk and speculation, Szalai writes of the parade of speculative-driven crises over the past three decades. The 2007 crisis was neither unexpected nor unpredictable—in spite of the protestations of shock and surprise by those speculators who cried wolf and begged for a bailout. Also in 1997, the bailout of Long Term Capital Management caught the market unawares.
As one risk manager at Merill Lynch put it then,
"We had no idea they would be in trouble—these people were known for risk management. They had taught it; they designed it. God knows, we were dealing with Nobel Prize winners!"
Szalai's insight goes deeper than simply a lambasting of Wall Street and speculators. What she sees is that the modern art of speculation is itself a progressive faith, one that believes in a quasi religious and mystical way in our ability to peer into the Future, to predict and to control the unknown. We have, she shows, an ever-greater belief in our technological and technical abilities to prepare for and thus improve our fate. As a result,
"Finance has given the future over to mathematics and supercomputers, which, like any other prosthetic god, bring with them the temptations of both recklessness and complacency. Our technologies belong to us; we create them, and they amplify our abilities and our reach, yet we exhibit a strange eagerness to relinquish our dominion over them, endowing them with a monstrous authority that demands our accommodation and surrender."
In the ambivalence toward technology that we both create and submit to, one hears Arendt's own insight that we humans possess a deep desire to overcome our human limitations. What Arendt worried about—already in in The Human Condition in 1958—was that we were finally nearing the stage of technological development when we seek to replace our human fallibility with an inhuman rationality. Clearly we have not yet reached that stage—if we ever will. Arendt did not think we would ever live in a fully inhuman world.
And yet, the desire to perfect ourselves persists, along with our human shame at our imperfections. We yearn to control and master the future, and one corollary of that is our deep wish to cede control over our lives to the hyper-rationality, objectivity, and reliability of machines. Machines do not get tired and do not make sloppy mistakes. Machines are not biased, and they don't cloud their judgments with emotions. It is for this reason that we are increasingly turning to machines to make our most important judgments—drive our cars, diagnose our illnesses, and write our news articles. Not only finance has "given the future over to mathematics and supercomputers," but also love and death are now to be subject to risk analysis, algorithmic prediction, and computer predictability.
As we give over our future to machines, do we, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, give ourselves over to our inventions, and thus become slaves to ourselves? This is Szalai's conclusion. And yes, we are succumbing to our machines, the very machines we design and build. In doing so, we abandon our human freedom to our equally human desire for security and certainty. In Szalai's words, we give ourselves up to our "perverse urge to lose our uncomfortable selves." In doing so, in abandoning our human faculty of judgment to machines, we gain a measure of control, but we risk losing the activity of judgment that is the core of humanity.