Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Veil Is Thin (Individuals/Communities)

Relatively short post today; I mostly wanted to set out something briefly that will end up being crucial later on. Rather than delay such a topic until later, I decided it would make the most sense to present it now. It will also allow us to test my momentary theopoetic up to this point.

Who are we? Earlier, I explored this topic somewhat, and presented a few images. Let us consider those images once again. What does it mean to be conscious?

We are our values. If we are anything at all, we are the values, the ghosts that pull us forward. We are the potential we see in the world. But not just that...

We are walking values. We are values in movement, values in flux. Our values one moment are not our values the next. We are never haunted by the same ghosts; we are never the same ghosts.

We are local, walking values. We are values in motion. We are never apart from our locality, from our incarnation. Our values are inseparable from our time, our being, our non-being. Potential is born of the moment. We are momentary ghosts.

We are unstable, local, walking values. Despite the fact that our values are local, they have no firm ground, no structural support. Our values are unstable. Our values hold no justification. There is no such thing as a meta-value. We have no mathematical formula to follow to resolve which values we should live into. We walk on unstable ground.

We are contradictory, unstable, local, walking values. There is no unity to our ghosts, no thread that holds us together. Our values pull us in multiple, contradictory directions. We must choose. We can only act(ualize) once. The potential we envision is not whole, not singular, not one. We are pulled apart. We are not a synthesis. We are just thesis and antithesis. Our contradictions lead to our responsibility.

No doubt the images could continue. We are also tragic, hopeful values. There is much contained within our hearts. However, at this point, before we continue painting the picture, let us pull the brush back and study our painting.

It can probably be assumed that I am describing, painting individuals here. But am I? Do tragic, hopeful, contradictory, unstable, local, walking values describe just individuals, just the self? Perhaps our brush has painted communities as well...

Consider it - communities consist of contradictory values. The values of a community constantly shift, ebb and flow, are always in movement. Communities are defined by tragedy and hope. Communities are unstable and groundless, just as unjustified as the individual, as the ghosts that haunt them both. Communities too are local, as they live in extended, and yet still limited, moments of being and non-being.

The veil between the individual and the community is thin (if it is anything but a ghost at all). The self is nothing but a community; the community is nothing but a self. Communities make up part of the locality, part of the potential individuals live within. Individuals make up part of the locality, part of the potential communities live within. Both ghosts are conscious. Both are tragic, hopeful, contradictory, unstable, local, walking values. Both share in a haunting. Both are the potential we see in the world. The veil is thin...


Dylan said...

Nice way to link the concept of the individual and the community. From a biological sense, communities are similar to individuals as well, both requiring certain sets of systems to work together harmoniously in order for the whole to continue.

It is interesting to think about where the imaginary line between self and community gets drawn, as there are more similarities between these ideas than differences.

Ryan Langrill said...

Of course I would have some problems with that post. Individuals are more than just their momentary values - they are their history; someone's values one moment are a result of their values the moment before and back to their beginning. A chapter in the middle of the book can't be taken without the preceding chapters.

Communities are not the same way. A community does not have a memory outside of individuals within the community or records that they decide to keep. You can take an individual from every community he or she is part of, and they are still the same person. If you replace every individual within a community, the community is no longer recognizable.

I also disagree with your sentiment that contradictions can be upheld in either an individual or a community. You can hold contradictory ideas, until there comes a moment when you face a moral decision where your contradictory values come to a head. A house divided against itself cannot stand - individuals must cope with cognitive dissonance when their ideas clash, and communities deal with their own kind of dissonance. Take a look at our own country, which held itself as the land of the free with an economy built on slavery. Not every contradiction will lead to such a violent cognitive dissonance, but no contradiction is able to be held indefinitely.

Wildflower said...

Ryan, here are a few thoughts on your post.

You insist that individuals are a matter of history rather than of the moment. Nietzsche might use the word "genealogy" instead, but I won't disagree that our post/modern world would typically agree with you. However, my claim is not one of exclusion but rather of emphasis. What is the defining element for an individual? Certainly, an individual is partly made up by a locality (which to a certain degree is what I feel you want to express with historicity - what was shaped in the current moment from all the previous moments). However, the individual is not just the locality, the past "edge" of the moment. The individual is also the potential they envision, or the future "edge" of the moment. So, if the individual is more than either "edge" what is the individual defined by? The interplay between both edges, both potential and the locality. But that interplay always occurs in the moment. And so, if we are to quest for the individual, we should look to the moment. Certainly, a chapter in the middle of the book cannot stand by itself (because it has no narrative framework), just as a moment cannot exist without the localities. However, I ask, Ryan, which instant are we actually reading the book in?

You attempt to make the above claim so as to separate communities from individuals. Individuals have memory, communities do not. I disagree. We are our relationships. Can you state positive (or negative) elements about yourself without describing your relationships with other people, other communities, other objects? If your mother did not exist, would you be the same person?

Perhaps, you might argue that individuals can exist beyond any one relationship. In other words, you would be mostly the same person apart from your relationship with me, for example. While such a claim is relative, even if one attempts to grasp such persistence, you will discover that it slips through your fingers. After all, one can say that a community also relatively persists without single relationships. A community only ceases to exist when it does not exist in any relationships. So too, an individual does not exist without any relationships. As Heidegger might say, individuality is always about "something." Consciousness is always conscious of something. Individuals are always in relationship with something, just like communities. Remove the individual from every community they are a part of, family, friends, etc and you will find yourself chasing a ghost.

To your last claim, I want to make the point that I never claimed that contradictions cannot be surpassed within particular actions. In fact, my ethical approach assumes that in order to act our contradictions must be surpassed - in order to act we must leap into the abyss of undecidability. It is the very contradictoriness of our values that allows our decisions to be ethical.

Certainly, one can make a goal of unitary holism, i.e. removing the contradictions in our world, beliefs and values. Sometimes, we do truly walk away from particular values (or value networks) such as slavery. Certainly, we do such an act because of our other values. And I would certainly agree that giving up the value of slavery was the correct step.

However, no matter how much one might wish to live outside our cognitive dissonance, as you put it, we cannot escape it. "Resolve" one contradiction and another will appear. No two values are ever in complete harmony. Our worlds are always in tension. We may wish for stability but we cannot have it. We may wish for coherence but we will not reach it. And yet, against your claim, we still stand. We stand on shifting, incoherent sands. I take hope in that.

Ultimately, despite the Western project for coherence and unity, I'm not sure such a goal is even always wise. If I find my values of love, life and freedom in contradiction, and even while I must act in the moment from my undecidability, act to surpass the contradiction, would it be the wise choice to remove the contradictions beyond the action? Should I turn my back on love, or life, or freedom? No. Dissonance must be retained. After all, it is what allows us to hope, and in the end, to act. If I give up on some values, it is not because they contradict others. Rather, it is because that value ceases to present me with any potential in the moment at all.

You are right, of course, in your ending. No contradiction is eternal. Nothing is. Hence the momentary theopoetics. We must not give up simply because nothing persists. Because after all, you will find that just as particular dissonance never persists, so too, particular coherence never persists as well. And so, while we can trace the history/genealogy of contradictions, unsurprisingly, we simply find ourselves back in the moment. The agency of the moment.

Ryan Langrill said...

I don't see how love, life, or freedom are contradictions of each other. They can conflict, but they are not contradictions. There will always be conflicts between our values, when you have to have to choose one to supersede another. In the example I used of the Civil War, a society based on freedom cannot also be a society condoning slavery; it is a society of freedom and non freedom - those are mutually exclusive (as Rand would say, trying to quote Aristotle, A cannot be non-A).

Another example would be a gay man trying to be happy in a heterosexual marriage. On one hand, he values physical attraction in men, but on the other hand he values the pact he has made with a woman, which implies physical attraction (among many other things). He is living a contradiction, and while he may be able to survive a moment, his values are mutually exclusive, and he has no way of living a fulfilling life (unless he either forgoes his desire for physical satisfaction or his desire to remain faithful to his wife).

Again, contradictions cannot be sustained; a lack of contradictions does not mean that you have reached harmony.

As for individuals, yes, they are defined by their relationships, and the individual changes depending on which relationship he is defining himself in, but individuals also have relationships with themselves - a consciousness can be conscious of itself; a consciousness is made up of the sum of all previous relationships. If you remove an individual from all relationships, you still have that sum of previous experience. If my mother stopped existing, I would still have the memories and the influence of my mother on me. A community, if it loses a group member, is as if that member never existed, except inasmuch as other individuals remember that person. If you remove everyone from a community, there is nothing, not even a past or a consciousness that can reflect upon departed people, or, just as importantly, itself.

Wildflower said...


If we take the moment to be basic, there is no difference between conflicts in the moment and contradictions in the moment. While you want to have some sense of extension of values (and possible contradictions) beyond each moment, our agency (which does not extend beyond the moment) does not support such a move. Moment to moment we always have contradictory values (which is why we see different choices). Valuing life, love and freedom are necessarily contradictory. Taken at face value, freedom is the ability to do anything at all. Love and life are things that constrain us - they give us a sense of duty. We have a duty to love (and so we give up some freedom because of our choice to love). If I value life, I give up the "freedom" to kill (others and myself). If I value life, isn't there a contradiction if I sacrifice my own life for love of another? Since agency is in the moment, all I need is momentary contradictions. And to that end, momentary contradictions seem to be omnipresent (which, is, again, what opens up our ability for choice).

Even freedom as a value can be contradictory (contra Rand). If I am free to kill someone, another loses the freedom to live. If I am free to go to grad school, someone else cannot go in my place. If I am free to gain from our economic system, others suffer. There is no absolutely free society. And yet, some freedom exists. Hence, not-F and F.

Your next example (of the homosexual man) is an interesting one. If the individual's values are contradictory, then by pure definition the individual cannot live a absolutely fulfilled life. The man either has to suspend one value or the other in order to act. But that does not mean the individual sacrifices the value. In fact, the meaning (and tragedy) of the choice exists because of the contradiction. No one can fulfill their values in totality - that is part of the tragedy of life. I have actually met several individuals that were/are similar to your example. All of them ended up making a choice but still recognized the tragedy. The situation was tragic because they had not resolved the conflict, nor should they have. They commonly acted toward a divorce and yet still recognized what they had given up, what they had sacrificed. Tragedy exists when our values contradict. Because we cannot fulfill all of our values we will live within tragedy because of those values we cannot resolve. That is simply a fact of life. The man might act toward one value or the other. That, however, does not remove the other value, or the tragedy that exists because of that value.

You are right that particular contradictions cannot be sustained (nothing can). Regardless, new contradictions arise in every new moment, as we shift our values. We cannot escape our contradictions (nor should we try).

Your claim is that individuals have "memory" that sets them apart from communities. Communities do have memory though. It is the memory that exists in the dialogue between others that remain in the community. It is the memory that exists in stories, writings, and myths. It is called communal memory. Just like individual memory, it functions in narrative. And just like individual memory, it is concerned with the moment at hand. As long as a community exists in relationship (of some sort) it has memory. An individual is exactly the same - as long as the individual lives in some form of relationship with something (so as to establish identity), the individual will have memory. Our world is made up of stories. Neither individuals, nor communities escape that fact.